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Widening Racial Disparities Underlie Rise in Child Deaths in the U.S.

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Thanks to advancements in medicine and insurance, mortality rates for children in the United States had been shrinking for decades. But last year, researchers uncovered a worrisome reversal: The child death rate was rising.

Now, they have taken their analysis a step further. A new study, published Saturday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed growing disparities in child death rates across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Native American youths ages 1 to 19 died at significantly higher rates than white youths — predominantly from injuries such as car accidents, homicides and suicides.

Dr. Coleen Cunningham, chair of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, and the pediatrician in chief at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, who was not involved in the study, said the detailed analysis of the disparities documented “a sad and growing American tragedy.”

“Almost all are preventable,” she said, “if we make it a priority.”

Flowers for Karon Blake, 13, who was shot and killed in Washington, D.C., in January 2023. Gun-related deaths were two to four times higher among Black and Native American youth than among white youth.Credit…Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Some Context: A frightening trend examined more closely.

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Children’s Hospital of Richmond had previously revealed that mortality rates among children and adolescents had risen by 18 percent between 2019 and 2021. Deaths related to injuries had grown so dramatically that they eclipsed all public health gains.

The group, seeking to drill deeper into the worrying trend, obtained death certificate data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public WONDER database and stratified it by race, ethnicity and cause for children ages 1 to 19. They found that Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children were not only dying at significantly higher rates than white children but that the disparities — which had been improving until 2013 — were widening.

The data also revealed that while the mortality rates for children overall took a turn for the worse around 2020, the rates for Black, Native American and Hispanic children had begun increasing much earlier, around 2014.

Between 2014 and 2020, the death rates for Black children and teenagers rose by about 37 percent, and for Native American youths by about by about 22 percent — compared with less than 5 percent for white youths.

“We knew we would find disparities, but certainly not this large,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine at the V.C.U. School of Medicine, who worked on the research. “We were shocked.”

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