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World Violence Claims 1.6 Million Lives a Year

Suicides account for half the deaths, WHO reports

THURSDAY, Oct. 3, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- More than 1.6 million people a year, or 4,400 each day, suffer violent and therefore preventable deaths throughout the world, according to a new report by the World Health Organization.

A third of the deaths are murders, a fifth the result of war and national strife. But half the killings are suicides, with roughly one every 40 seconds. Millions more people bear physical or emotional scars of abuse that's not fatal. The vast majority of violent acts are committed in secret and go unreported.

"While images of terrorism, war and civil unrest pervade our world view, we know little of the millions of children, adolescents, women and men who suffer in silence from abuse and neglect," said Dr. Gro Harlem Brudtland, the WHO's Director-General, in a speech today about the document.

"They suffer in the places that should offer them the greatest sense of security and belonging: their homes, schools, workplaces and the streets of their communities. Behind closed doors, even the safest of communities and countries are touched by violence in one way or another," she said.

Nelson Mandela, the once-imprisoned former leader of South Africa, wrote in a foreword to the report that "safety and security don't just happen: they are the result of collective consensus and public investment."

The report looked at violence in general, as well as its impact on specific groups, like the young, the elderly and women.

In 2000, for example, violence claimed the lives of almost 200,000 youths. For each of those violent deaths, 20 to 40 youths are injured by fighting, bullying and other forms of aggression. Many times, drunkenness is in part to blame for violence and its consequences.

Violence claims 14 percent of males between the ages of 15 and 44, and 7 percent of females in that age group.

As other reports on violence have found, women are particularly vulnerable to abuse in their own homes. Almost one in two murdered women are killed by their husband or a current or past boyfriend, and in some countries this rate is much higher.

Sexual abuse is also alarmingly common, according to the report, which claims that one in four women worldwide will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and a third of girls will endure forced initiation to sex. Most women who are abused are abused more than once.

Roughly 6 percent of the world's elderly are victims of violent abuse. People 75 and older also have three times the rate of suicide as those ages 15 to 24, the report said. Men kill themselves at three times the rate of women.

Eastern Europe has the highest rate of suicide, while Latin American and some Asian nations have the lowest incidence.

The reports singles out the 20th century as a particularly bloody era. During that time, 191 million people died in war or conflict, including two world wars and the purges in the Soviet Union and China. More than half of them were civilians.

The economic toll of violence on nations is buckling, with some countries spending up to 5 percent of their gross domestic product on health consequences alone.

The report calls for countries to funnel resources toward preventing violence in all groups of people, but especially the world's poor. Enforcing human rights treaties, cracking down on the international drug and arms trades and strengthening violence prevention programs would help, it said.

The United States is among the world's worst offenders when it comes to violent citizenry, said Jane Grady, an assistant director of the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. Much of that problem is due to the ready availability of handguns, she added.

Grady said the 21st century appears to be a little more benign than the last hundred years, thanks in part to stricter gun laws. "The lethality does seem to be dropping," she said. But violent youth gangs remain popular and adolescents are still prone to aggression. "It hasn't gone away," she said.

"This is a huge issue with huge numbers," said Dr. Patricia Salber, co-founder of Physicians for a Violence-Free Society, a San Francisco non-profit group. "Given the magnitude of the problem WHO has documented for us, we need to have a response of similar magnitude," Salber added. "Violence prevention programs need to be put into place that have the same kind of credibility as malaria prevention programs."

What To Do

For more on the report, visit the World Health Organization. For more on violence prevention, try the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

SOURCES: Jane M. Grady, assistant director, Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, University of Colorado, Boulder; Patricia Salber, M.D., M.B.A., co-founder, co-president, Physicians for a Violence-Free Society, San Francisco; Oct. 3, 2002, presentation, World Health Organization
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