Fri, Oct. 04, 2002

WHO: 1.6 million die in violence annually

By Thomas H. Maugh II

Humans have a remarkable capacity for committing violence against themselves and others, causing 1.6 million violent deaths a year -- half of those by suicide, according to a new study from the World Health Organization.

Someone kills themselves every 40 seconds, someone is murdered every 60 seconds and someone dies in a war every 100 seconds, according to the report released Thursday in Geneva.

And for every person who dies, another 15 to 20 suffer grievous physical harm.

The report, which took three years to compile, found enormous differences in violent death across the globe.

The murder rate in Colombia, for example, was nearly 85 deaths per 100,000 people ages 10 to 29, compared with about 1.5 per 100,000 throughout much of Europe.

Researchers found a suicide rate in Lithuania of 52 per 100,000 people, compared with just five per 100,000 in Mexico.

The report is the first global survey of human violence by the WHO, which is urging a more active role by governments in preventing individual violence.

"Every country is dealing with violence one way or another, but we are always dealing with it after the fact," said WHO's Dr. Etienne Krug, who led the three-year effort. "Public health is all about prevention. All sectors -- public health, police, justice -- have a role to play in preventing violence."

Added WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland: "When we are personally confronted by violence, it profoundly disturbs and unsettles us, yet violence has such a persistent presence in our society that we often ignore it. Today, the World Health Organization sounds the alarm."

The report, in its most surprising finding, estimated that 815,000 people committed suicide in 2000, the most recent year for which data is available.

That makes suicide the 13th leading cause of death worldwide.

Suicide occurs most commonly among the elderly and is three times more likely among men than women -- with one major exception, China.

In China, 1.6 women kill themselves for every man who does so, and the country, with one-fifth the world's population, accounts for 55 percent of all female suicides globally. The report suggests cultural factors may lie at the root of the Chinese suicide problem but offers no specific causes.

Elsewhere, some of the highest suicide rates occur in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant.

The rate among the Inuit people of northern Canada was among the highest in the world, between 60 and 75 per 100,000, compared with 15 per 100,000 in the Canadian population at large. The United States has a suicide rate of 13.9 per 100,000.

An estimated 520,000 people were murdered in 2000. The toll included 199,000 people between the ages of 10 and 29 who were killed by other young people, a disproportionate share.

Among people aged 15 to 44, murder accounted for 14 percent of deaths among men and 7 percent among women.

Fighting and bullying are common in this age group, Krug said, and alcohol and drug abuse and easy access to firearms play a major role.

Homicides in this age group have soared in the United States, many Latin American countries and the former Soviet Union, but stabilized or decreased in much of Western Europe and Canada, the report said.

Almost half the women who are murdered are killed by their current or former husbands or boyfriends, according to the study. In some countries, the rate is as high as 70 percent.

About 57,000 of the homicides in 2000 occurred among young children, who often died from head injuries or suffocation resulting from abuse.

In this context, the 310,000 people who died in wars in 2000 seems almost modest, but the numbers add up quickly to reach truly staggering figures.

In the 20th century, an estimated 191 million people died as a result of warfare, half of them civilians, the report said.

Among the prevention programs suggested by the report are preschool and social development programs for children and adolescents, parent training and support programs, and firearms training.

The authors also call for strengthening responses for victims of violence, promoting adherence to international treaties, and improving data collection.


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