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Study: Urban And Rural Children Don’t Have Equal Chance Of Living Into Adulthood

A mural on the Navajo Nation, part of the Painted Desert Project.

Nationwide, more and more people are surviving childhood. But researchers found those improvements might not be as big in rural areas. 

A report last year found that child mortality rates had improved. In fact, nationally, it looked like the country had met its 2020 goals. But then researchers took a closer look.

“Those objectives have not been met for rural populations,” said Whitney Zahnd, a public health scientist with the Rural and Minority Health Research Center at the University of South Carolina. 

The results came out in a study published in the journal Health Affairs. They show that from 1999 to 2017, rural children of all ages experienced higher mortality rates than urban children.

As Zahnd wrote this week in The Daily Yonder, “Rural children don’t have an equal chance of living into adulthood. The problem is especially pronounced for rural children who are Black or Native American/Alaska Natives.”

Between 2015 and 2017, rural black babies were about twice as likely to die as rural white babies. And the researchers found that, across all age groups, rural Native American and Alaska Native children had the highest mortality rates of any population. 

Zooming out to the broader population, over the past 20 years, rural children were less likely than urban children to be killed by others, but more likely to die by suicide, and twice as likely as urban children to die of unintentional injury, due to things like drowning and car crashes.

“And we hypothesize this is due to longer distances to get to trauma care, this is due to some policies that might need to be implemented to reduce road crashes,” Zahnd said, like safer road design, legislation to encourage safer driving, and improvements in emergency medical response. 

“We can't change what we don't measure,” she added. “And so one of the things we really wanted to highlight with our study is measuring and quantifying some of those disparities in child mortality in rural areas so that we can move the needle a little bit on policies that might help reduce the mortality rates and the overall disparities we see in rural populations.” 

Notably, in recent years, suicide rates have actually increased among children between 10 and 19 years old. Rural children in that age group were 41% more likely to die by suicide than their urban peers.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.
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