Preventable childhood deaths in Arizona are at their highest level in five years, according to an annual study released this week.

That means more than one in four childhood deaths in 2016 could have been prevented, according to the Annual Arizona Child Fatality Review Program conducted by public-health and child-welfare officials.

In all, 783 children under age 18 died last year, from causes ranging from medical conditions to motor-vehicle crashes to suicides.

As it does every year, the report’s recommendations focus on deaths that could have been avoided with more vigilance or education. In particular, Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza, who oversees the program, highlighted the 79 deaths traced to unsafe sleeping conditions, which occurred primarily with infants.

“They can be so easily prevented,” she said of the deaths that previously have been referred to as crib deaths. “These are healthy infants.”

Accidents accounted for most of the preventable deaths. Motor-vehicle crashes were responsible for 71 deaths, up 42 percent from 2015. Drowning claimed 27 lives, down from 30 last year. The study concluded that all 38 homicides and all 42 suicides last year could have been avoided.

For example, there were nine fewer suicides in 2016 compared with the previous year, due in part to programs that targeted bullying or that focused on substance-abuse and behavioral-health issues.

The annual report, compiled by the state Department of Health Services, focuses on year-over-year comparisons. Viewed over a longer time frame, the trend is downward in overall deaths (a 6 percent drop) but up 20 percent for preventable fatalities.

Rimsza attributed the opposing directions to increased access to health care. If a family can get medical care, she said, they can more readily deal with conditions such as complications from premature birth, infections, or other diseases, leading to a drop in deaths.

That makes accidental deaths — the second-biggest category of fatality after medical causes — more prevalent, she said.

A key takeaway from the report, Rimsza said, is an emphasis on safe-sleep practices for families.

If parents are vigilant about how they put their children to bed, the number of such fatalities can decline, she said.

For example, parents need to resist the temptation to let their baby sleep with them, where the child risks being suffocated by the bedding or by a parent rolling over. Babies should be consistently placed on their backs in a crib free of potential suffocating items, such as a cushy mattress, stuffed toys and even bumper pads, Rimsza said.

Health officials hope to step up public awareness for this easily preventable fatality by following the lead of Los Angeles County, where a wide-ranging public-awareness campaign led to a dramatic drop in such deaths.

That county saw the number of unsafe-sleep deaths in babies drop from 67 a year, before the program started, to 24 in 2015, the latest year for which data is available. That’s a 64 percent decline. 

More than two-thirds of these deaths happened to babies under 1 year old.


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