Falls most common fatal injury among Hawaii residents

Published On: Nov 20 2011 06:55:00 PM HST

As a state and as a nation, we're getting older.

"Every single day 10,000 people turn 65... and that's going to continue every day for the next 19 years," said Stan Michaels, a public health coordinator with the state Health Department's Injury Prevention Program.

Perhaps the growing number explains why so many of Hawaii's senior citizens are succumbing to injuries caused by falls. According to a new DOH publication called "Injuries in Hawaii: 2007-2011," 541 people died as the result of a fall during the five years studied.

Michaels believes the key to lowering the number of fatal falls among those in their golden years is better communication among relatives, caregivers and those who are most susceptible.

"We have to convince kupuna that they have lost a little bit of their balance and their strength, and they have to be aware of that," said Michaels, who himself is 71.  "We have to let all the caregivers know that that's a possibility, and don't underestimate it – you've got to do tough love."  

The second most common type of unintentional fatal injury in Hawaii is poisoning, not by an unknown substance, but rather prescription drugs that are either abused or ingested accidentally.

"It's less sort of the street drug use as opposed to medically prescribed substances, particularly opiates," explains Dan Galanis, an epidemiologist with the Injury Prevention Program, who helped compile much of the new data.

The report shows drugs caused 93 percent of fatal poisonings, including 32 percent from "narcotics and hallucinogens" and 34 percent from "sedative-hypnotic and psychotropic drugs."

Drugs and alcohol also played a role in the third leading cause of unintentional fatal injuries in the state, crashes involving motor vehicles.

According to the study, 40 percent of drivers involved in fatal car crashes tested positive for alcohol, almost one-quarter (23 percent) tested positive for drugs, and nearly half (49 percent) tested positive for either alcohol or drugs.   

However, the 290 people who died as a result of motor vehicle collisions are considered an improvement from previous data five years earlier.

"All along, Hawaii's had lower rates per capita to the rest of the United States, and it looks like we're decreasing further. So, that's kind of a positive area in terms of the injury picture," said Galanis.

Finally, drowning remains high on the list of unintentional deaths in Hawaii caused by injury, coming in at number four.  A total of 175 residents drowned from 2007 to 2011, most of them in the ocean.

Jim Howe, the operations chief for Honolulu Division of Ocean Safety, says while the number is alarming, it's important to point out that Hawaii is surrounded by the mighty Pacific.

"To put that in some context," said Howe, "we have an awful lot of folks who use the ocean on a regular basis.  We as a community are doing a pretty good job of getting to people when they are in trouble."

In the past year, Ocean Safety officials have taken the initiative to improve response times even more with the goal of saving lives.  Waverunner crews were added to Oahu's North Shore as well as the Windward side, bringing the number of fast response teams to two along each coastline.

"Really, what we're attempting to do is reduce the amount of time it takes to get a trained person on scene," said Howe. "Early intervention is the key to success in these situations."

Howe also points to the division's Junior Lifeguard Program, which for the past 20 years has helped educate teens about the dangers of the ocean and proper life-saving techniques.

"If they're well-trained and well-skilled, they can intervene and they can call (911)," said Howe. "It's about communication, and it's also about us all taking a little bit of responsibility for each other out there."

However, the one area where a call to action is perhaps the hardest to measure is suicides.  During the five-year period studied, 795 Hawaii residents took their own lives.

"It may have peaked in 2010," Galanis said of Hawaii's suicide rate. "We're hoping that we're seeing more encouraging trends as of late."

According to the data, suicide was the second leading cause of death among those 10 to 19 years old.  The report says the most common negative life events for victims were related to intimate relationship problems (34 percent), usually a break-up or divorce (12 percent), or serious illness or medical issues (26 percent).

The entire injuries in Hawaii report can be accessed online by visiting the DOH website at:  http://hawaii.gov/health


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