The heartbreaking deaths of young children from the devastating tornado in Oklahoma layer another scar over the one left on our national consciousness from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. For me, and I’m sure many parents and caregivers, these stories make lasting imprints. These images flash through my mind as I look at my children and how vulnerable they are—and I wonder where my worry is best focused and whether there is anything I could do to protect them anyway.
Although death of a child is rare (.07% from ages 0 to 19), at least one-third of those deaths are from what are called “external” incidents, i.e., not diseases or other medical conditions; these are deaths that potentially can be prevented.
Three of the biggest causes of death for these preventable events across our children’s lives (to age 19) are motor vehicles accidents (mostly in teenage years from inexperienced drivers), homicide (primarily in infant and teenage years), and suffocation (nearly always infants).
So, what is the likelihood of these two recent horrible events in Oklahoma and Sandy Hook? If we use past data to predict the future, the number of children who were victims of tornadoes or other cataclysmic storms was rare, about one and a half out of 10 million. Just for comparison, that rate is about half the number of children who die from being bitten or struck by mammals, including dogs (3 out of 10 million). In any case, to date, these incidents are still rare, even in tornado-belt states.
Sandy Hook is a different story. Homicide is the second most common cause of external deaths among children, and about two-thirds of those deaths are from guns, as in the case of Sandy Hook. Most of the deaths occur in teenage years, when the impulsive and risk-taking teenage brain interacts with highly effective guns. What would have gone down as a bad decision becomes a deadly one. In fact, if we add the number of children who used a gun to commit suicide and the number of purely accidental gun deaths, one out of every six of the accidental deaths of childhood is from guns. In other words, a child dying from a bullet is more common that we want to acknowledge.
While I am inescapably overwhelmed by witnessing these heart-wrenching events, we owe it to all the lives lost—including the heroes who died protecting our children—to ask questions, learn, and focus our energies to begin where most children are unnecessarily lost: primarily teen-related motor vehicle accidents, gun-related homicide, and infant-related suffocation. If parents come together and focus together, we can achieve lasting change—and the stories we will carry with us will be success stories.
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