June 4, 1997 Many people associate deadly fires with poor families and crowed, big-city neighborhoods. Indeed, a new study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shows that young children in poor areas are six times more likely than other children to die in a fire. But the same study shows that the deaths are by no means limited to the city. In fact, young children in rural areas are almost three times more likely than young children in cities to die in a fire.
The researchers examined the death certificates of all Missouri children who died in household fires between 1990 and 1995. In rural areas, about nine in every 100,000 children under age 5 died in a fire each year, compared with just over three fire-related deaths per 100,000 young children in the cities. The researchers reported the findings last month at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies' meeting in Washington, D.C.
"Fire is one of the leading causes of death among children, particularly children less than 5 years old," says Nancy Wick, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in pediatrics at the School of Medicine and the study's lead researcher. "But a lot of fire-related childhood deaths can be prevented. The point of this research is to find some interventions that work."
Wick suspects that unsafe housing is the main cause of the high death rates in both poor and rural areas. She says children in low-income neighborhoods often live in old houses with dangerous heating, such as space heaters and wood stoves. And many children in rural areas live in mobile homes, which can burn quickly and often have only a single exit.
Wider use of smoke detectors in all types of housing would probably cut the death rate, Wick says.
Other researchers have suggested that fires in rural areas are often fatal because it takes so long to get victims to a hospital, but Wick thinks other factors are more important. "Most children who are killed by fire die at the scene or before they get to the hospital, even in urban areas," she says.
In a previous study, Wick and other researchers found that the fire-related death rate for young children in Missouri was twice the national average. Other states in the South and Midwest also have high death rates, including Illinois, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi. These states can probably also trace their death rates to unsafe heaters, mobile homes and old, wooden housing, Wick says.
In future studies, Wick plans to compare death rates to the causes of the fires, the type of housing, the amount of adult supervision, and the use of smoke detectors.
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