Research shows more is needed to safeguard adolescent health

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

A recent article in the medical journal The Lancet, starkly illustrates that investments in global health and development are failing to meet the needs of adolescents. While significant progress has been made in the survival rate of young children over the past 50 years – mostly due to funding for vaccines and declines in infectious diseases – we have barely made a dent in the mortality of adolescent girls and boys over the same time period. In most countries, young people ages 15 and older face a higher risk of dying than do children ages five and younger.

In The Lancet article, the authors separate cause of death by sex. They report that the main cause of death for young men ages 10 to 24 is injury, whereas young women in the same age group die more from communicable and non-communicable disease. While death from disease has declined over the last five decades, injury-related death has remained stable or has increased in most countries. And while data featured in the article show that young men are faring worse than young women in terms of overall mortality, it does not show the differences between girls and boys in terms of their overall health and well-being.

Both boys and girls suffer from violence, but the nature and patterns of violence are different. For instance, other studies indicate that young men are more likely to be injured or killed outside the home, through social violence, war and violence among male peers. Young women are more likely to be injured or killed by people in their home – their husbands, boyfriends or relatives. And women and girls suffer disproportionately from complications from pregnancy and childbearing, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections – conditions that do not always result in death during childhood, but that severely undermine the overall health and opportunities for women and girls. These facts underscore how important it is to consider both age and gender when developing policies and programs to prevent early death and promote better health.

The implications of these mortality trends are significant. Nearly half of the world’s population is below the age of 25, and these young people contribute significantly to the human capital of their communities. We are losing young women and men just when they are acquiring the skills, knowledge and abilities to make productive contributions to their communities – as students, workers and citizens. And according to Unicef’s 2011 “State of the World’s Children,” unless we have a stronger focus on adolescent development and participation, “the fight against poverty, inequality and gender discrimination will be incomplete, and its effectiveness compromised.”

It is simply not enough to ensure that girls and boys can survive their childhood. We must do much more to guarantee that survival is only the first step in a safe passage to a healthy, productive and empowered adulthood.

Download the full text of “50 Year Mortality Trends in Children and Young People” at The Lancet. (Registration required)