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Suicide Lead Cause of Intentional Deaths


Humans have a remarkable capacity for committing violence against themselves and others, causing 1.6 million violent deaths a year--half of those by suicide, according to an exhaustive World Health Organization study.

Worldwide, someone is a victim of suicide every 40 seconds, someone is the victim of homicide every 60 seconds and someone dies in war every 100 seconds, said the report released Thursday in Geneva. And for every person who dies, 15 to 20 more suffer grievous physical harm.

The report, which took three years to compile, found enormous differences in violent deaths across the globe. The murder rate in Colombia, for example, was nearly 85 deaths per 100,000 people ages 10 to 29, compared to about 1.5 per 100,000 throughout much of Europe. Researchers found a suicide rate in Lithuania of 52 per 100,000 people, compared to just 5 per 100,000 in Mexico.

The report is the first global survey of human violence by the WHO, which is urging a more active role by governments in preventing individual violence.

"Every country is dealing with violence one way or another, but we are always dealing with it after the fact," said WHO's Dr. Etienne Krug, who led the effort. "Public health is all about prevention. All sectors--public health, police, justice--have a role to play in preventing violence."

"When we are personally confronted by violence, it profoundly disturbs and unsettles us, yet violence has such a persistent presence in our society that we often ignore it," WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said. "Today, the World Health Organization sounds the alarm."

The report, in its most surprising finding, estimated that 815,000 people committed suicide in 2000, the most recent year for which data are available. That makes suicide the 13th leading cause of death worldwide.

Suicide occurs most commonly among the elderly and is three times more likely among men than women--with one major exception: China. In China, 1.6 women kill themselves for every man who does so and the country, with 20% of the world's population, accounts for 55% of female suicides globally. The report suggests cultural factors may lie at the root of the Chinese suicide problem, but offers no specific causes.

The suicide rate among the Inuit people of northern Canada was among the highest in the world, between 60 and 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 15 per 100,000 in the Canadian population at large. The United States has a suicide rate of 13.9 people per 100,000 population.

An estimated 520,000 people were the victims of homicide in 2000, and for every person who died, 20 to 40 more were hospitalized, the report says. That toll included 199,000 people between ages 10 and 29 who were killed by other young people, a disproportionate share.

Among people ages 15 to 44, murder accounted for 14% of deaths among men and 7% among women. Fighting and bullying are common in this age group, Krug said, and alcohol and drug abuse and easy access to firearms play a major role. Homicides in this age group have soared in the United States, many Latin American countries and the former Soviet Union, but stabilized or decreased in much of Western Europe and Canada, the report says.

Krug said his group will not lobby for stronger gun controls as part of its anti-violence programs. "It's not our role," he said.

Almost half the women who are murdered are killed by their current or former husbands or boyfriends, according to the study. In some countries, the rate is as high as 70%.

"To many people, staying out of harm's way is a matter of locking doors and windows," Brundtland said. "To others ... the threat of violence is behind those doors."

About 57,000 of the homicides in 2000 occurred among young children, who often died from head injuries or suffocation resulting from abuse. Studies in several countries also show that about 20% of women and perhaps half that many men suffered sexual abuse as children.

In this context, the 310,000 people who died in wars in 2000 seems almost modest, but the numbers add up quickly to reach truly staggering figures. In the 20th century, an estimated 191 million people died as a result of warfare, half of those civilians, the report says.

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