MONDAY, April 16, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Accidental deaths among children and adolescents have dropped 30 percent since 2000 but still remain the number-one killer of children and teens, according to new statistics released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday.
"More than 9,000 children died from unintentional injuries in the U.S. in 2009," said CDC principal deputy director Ileana Arias at a Monday press conference. "In the U.S., death rates from unintentional injuries in children up to age 14 were among the worst of all high-income countries."
Leading the list of fatal unintentional injuries were motor vehicle crashes, although suffocation, drowning, poisoning, fires and burns and falls also contributed to fatalities.
One expert said the CDC analysis was "encouraging," but said the drop in numbers could and should fall further.
The new report "highlights the need for further education and community intervention," said Dr. Estevan Garcia, director of pediatric emergency medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "These injuries are devastating to families and are preventable."
An analysis of data from the National Vital Statistics System revealed that the annual death rate from unintentional injury dropped 29 percent from 15.5 per 100,000 people to 11 per 100,000 people.
The decrease was seen among all age groups except children under the age of 1, where rates rose from about 23 to almost 28 per 100,000 infants from 2000 to 2009. That increase was largely the result of a 54 percent rise in suffocations, although authorities aren't sure what is behind the rise.
Deaths from poisoning in teens aged 15 to 19 almost doubled during the decade, mostly a result of more prescription drug overdoses, the CDC added.
"The picture with teens is not that different than with prescription drugs in the entire population," said Arias. "Painkillers are essentially the driver of this trend, things like Vicodin, Percocet and Demerol."
A welcome decline of 41 percent was seen in motor vehicle-related deaths, although these still comprised the majority of deaths from unintentional injuries. The CDC experts credit several factors for the decline, including improved use of child safety seats and booster seats and more widespread adoption and strengthening of Graduated Driver License (GDL) laws, said Arias.
Unfortunately, motor vehicle-related accidents still account for half of all child injury deaths, she said.
Accidental death rates also varied between states, from a low of less than five deaths per 100,000 children in Massachusetts and New Jersey to more than 23 deaths per 100,000 in South Dakota and Mississippi.
The CDC has partnered with more than 60 other organizations to release a National Action Plan on Child Injury Prevention.
Steps that communities, parents and caregivers can take to enhance safety include creating or choosing play areas with soft landing surfaces, making sure homes have functioning smoke alarms, ensuring that every child wears a seat belt or is in an appropriate safety seat whenever they ride in a vehicle, and only putting babies and infants to sleep on their backs with no soft toys or loose bed clothes, said Dr. Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC's division of unintentional injury prevention.
Both prescription and over-the-counter medications should also be locked up and kept away from children and teens, she added.
Garcia also offered up a few more tips to keep kids safe.
"Parents also need to understand that drowning does not only occur in pools or outdoors, but can occur if a child is left unattended in a bathtub, even for just a few seconds," he noted. "Parents can also help protect their children by insisting they use a helmet and other protective gear when riding a bike or scooter."
The findings are published in the April 16 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
There's more on protecting children from harm at Safe Kids USA .