WHO, partners lament high death of adolescents, call for special care

The World Health Organisation has called on governments to include special care for adolescents in their health budgets so as to reduce preventable deaths.

Adolescents are young people in the 10 to 19 years age group.

The call followed a report that showed road traffic injuries as the top cause of death among the age group, causing 115,302 deaths in 2015.

According to the report from the global health agency and its partners released on Tuesday, road traffic injuries, lower respiratory infections, and suicide were the biggest causes of death among adolescents.

The report indicated that more than 3000 adolescents die every day, totalling 1.2 million deaths a year, from largely preventable causes and more than two-thirds of these deaths occurred in low-and middle-income countries in Africa and South-East Asia.

“Most of these deaths can be prevented with good health services, education and social support, but in many cases, adolescent who suffer from mental disorder, substance use, or poor nutrition cannot obtain critical prevention and care either because the services do not exist or because they do not know about them.

“In addition, many behaviours that impact health later in life, such as physical inactivity, poor diet and risk sexual health behaviour, begins in adolescence”, it stated.

Data in the report from Global Accelerated Action for the Health of Adolescents, Guidance to Support Country Implementation, revealed stark differences in causes of death when separating the adolescent group by age (younger adolescents aged 10–14 years and older ones aged 15–19 years) and by sex.

According to the data, death from road traffic injuries disproportionately affects older adolescents aged 15 to 19 years.

It however stated that communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and diarrhoeal diseases are bigger causes of death among adolescents than road injuries in low- and middle-income countries in Africa.

Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General, WHO, said “adolescents have been entirely absent from national health plans for decades and a relatively small investment focused on adolescents now will not only result in healthy and empowered adults who thrive and contribute positively to their communities, but it will also result in healthier future generations, yielding enormous returns.”

The report said the leading cause of death for adolescent girls aged 10–14 years were lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia often a result of indoor air pollution from cooking with dirty fuels, while pregnancy complications, such as haemorrhage, sepsis, obstructed labour, and complications from unsafe abortions are the top cause of death among 15–19-year-old girls.

Death from suicide and accidental death from self-harm were the third cause of adolescent mortality in 2015, resulting in an estimated 67,000 deaths.

“Self-harm largely occurs among older adolescents, and globally it is the second leading cause of death for older adolescent girls. It is the leading or second cause of adolescent death in Europe and South-East Asia”.

The report also includes the range of interventions – from seat-belt laws to comprehensive sexuality education – that countries can take to improve their health and well-being and dramatically cut unnecessary deaths.

According to the report, there is need to cater for the vulnerable group and intensify adolescent health in humanitarian and fragile settings as young people often take on adult responsibilities, including caring for siblings or working, and may be compelled to drop out of school, marry early, or engage in transactional sex to meet their basic survival needs.

As a result, they suffer malnutrition, unintentional injuries, pregnancies, diarrhoeal diseases, sexual violence, sexually-transmitted diseases, and mental health issue.

Anthony Costello, Director, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health, WHO, said improvement in adolescent health can be achieved by improving the way health systems serve adolescents, as is just one part of improving their health.

“Parents, families, and communities are extremely important, as they have the greatest potential to positively influence adolescent behaviour and health”, he said.

To reduce the high death rate of the age group, the health agencies also recommend interventions across sectors, including comprehensive sexuality education in schools; higher age limits for alcohol consumption; mandating seat-belts and helmets through laws; reducing access to and misuse of firearms; reducing indoor air pollution through cleaner cooking fuels; and increasing access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene.

They also provide detailed explanations of how countries can deliver these interventions with adolescent health programmes.

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