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Published June 06, 2012, 11:30 PM

Simplifying the steps to safety; Study says placing focus on preventing injuries makes a big difference

BALTIMORE – Tens of thousands of lives have been saved over the years because Americans more routinely wear seat belts and don’t drive drunk. But there are other public health threats from those who text while driving or overdose on prescription drugs.

By: Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun, INFORUM

BALTIMORE – Tens of thousands of lives have been saved over the years because Americans more routinely wear seat belts and don’t drive drunk.

But there are other public health threats from those who text while driving or overdose on prescription drugs.

That’s why a group of researchers began looking at which prevention measures work and who is using them across the country to stem the rate of injuries of all kinds. Injuries are the third-leading cause of death for adults and the biggest killer of young people.

“Injuries are a huge problem hiding in plain sight,” said Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research & Policy and co-author of a new report released by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “People don’t necessarily recognize the toll.”

Researchers believe it’s the first time a report has identified 10 key injury-prevention measures and which states have adopted them. They hope their findings are used to influence public policy and laws and to change individuals’ behavior.

Up to now, no state has adopted all of the measures that focus on such things as seat belts, bike and motorcycle helmets, child safety seats and prescription drug monitoring programs. The resulting injuries are not only a health issue, but a financial one, said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health.

Annual federal funding for injury prevention has been cut by 24 percent in the past five years to $88.6 million, he said, and many lawmakers want to know what the return on the investment will be before boosting the money anew.

About 50 million Americans are treated for injuries every year, including 9.2 million children who are taken to emergency rooms, Levi said. About 12,000 children die from their injuries. The injuries also generate $4.6 billion in lifetime costs for medical care and lost productively.

But the report shows injury-prevention laws are making gains, he said. Seat belts saved an estimated 69,000 lives from 2005 to 2010. Motorcycle helmets saved about 8,000 lives, and child safety seats saved 1,800 from 2005 to 2009.

“There are some relatively simple and inexpensive things you can do to make a big difference,” Levi said. “If every state passed every law, millions of lives and millions of dollars would be saved.”

Nationally, the rate of death from injuries is 57.9 per 100,000 people.

In the wake of the killing of Yeardley Love at the University of Virginia, another effort is under way to curb domestic violence among young people, said Frances B. Phillips, Maryland’s deputy secretary for public health services. She said the new report will give officials more data to back up their arguments for laws and funding.

The report’s authors said research will continue to determine the best methods of preventing injury. Sometimes recommendations change. For example, Gielen said, children should be in booster seats until they are 8 years old and babies’ seats should remain backward until occupants are 2, longer than previously thought.

Once research shows what works, the public still will need convincing. Gielen noted drunken driving as an example. Laws were passed but injuries did not go down until Mothers Against Drunk Driving publicized the problem. The next step, Gielen and other researchers say, are mandatory ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers.

But unintended consequences also could be a problem as new laws take effect, Levi said. For example, simply banning texting could make some drivers try to hide their phones from law enforcement, diverting their eyes longer from the road.

Nathaniel Thomas, who takes his young son to see a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins’ Harriett Lane Clinic, said becoming a father meant a huge learning curve for him. He said he’d never given much thought to baby gates, outlet covers and cabinet locks before having Nathaniel Jr. just over a year ago.

Now that his son is walking, he sees all kind of hazards and said he’s benefited from a safety center opened in his doctor’s office. The certified health educators there have shown him how to keep Nathaniel Jr. safe with products provided at low cost.

“This is my first child, and it’s all new to me,” said Thomas, who recently returned to the center for a second baby gate. “After I get it installed, I’ll feel more confident about his safety. It’ll keep him from getting into everything.”

Stephanie Parsons, project director for a mobile version of the Hopkins’ safety center, said even when people understand they need child safety seats, for instance, they don’t always use them correctly.

“They turn them around too fast or don’t belt them in properly,” Parsons said. “People know they need smoke detectors but then don’t test them to see if they work. Everyone needs to be taught about prevention.”