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Suicides up, but other violent deaths have decreased in Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2012 11:42 pm | Updated: 11:23 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Suicides are up in Alaska, but other violent deaths from both assaults and accidents are way down, according to a new report from the Alaska Division of Public Heath.

The study “Alaska Injury Surveillance Report” was created from data taken from the period 1980 to 2009. It found that the annual number of violent deaths from suicides, homicides and accidents has remained at about 500 deaths per year during the past 30 years, even while the state’s population has grown from 420,000 to 710,000. While suicides have become an increasingly common cause of fatal injury, homicides and unintentional injury deaths both have dropped. The study was financed with funding from the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration.

The study also reported on non-fatal hospitalizations. It found falls were the most likely injury to send Alaskans to the hospital for most age groups between 2005 and 2009. The one exception was Alaskans between 15 and 34, who were most likely to be hospitalized because of an attempted suicide.

The results were not surprising for people who work with these kinds of statistics regularly, but the report was a good opportunity to present data from a variety of sources, said Ambrosia Bowlus, a public health specialist for the Department of Health and Social Services who contributed to the report.

“The intent of the report was to be able to distribute what we see on a regular basis and have seen historically from 2005 to 2008, just trying to get the word out.”

Among the other findings:

• Accidental death was the third-most common cause of death for Alaska residents from 2005 to 2009, behind cancers and diseases of the heart.

• Among injury deaths reported from 2005 to 2009, the most common causes were suicide (721 deaths); accidental poisonings, including drug overdoes (494); motor vehicle accidents (444); homicides (170) and other transportation injuries (150).

• Residents of rural areas died much more frequently from unintentional injury. The study concluded this was likely a result of less access to medical care.

Among the biggest improvements recorded in the report are in the numbers and types of motor vehicle accidents, traditionally one of the most common causes of fatalities and injuries.

The measured breath-alcohol content of drivers involved in fatal crashes has declined fairly consistently since 2000, and far fewer of these drivers had breath-alcohol contents higher than 0.08. The 0.08 number is one metric used in Alaska courts to determine if a driver is impaired, although it’s possible to be convicted of driving under the influence with a lower breath-alcohol content. The authors of the report attributed the statistic to increased law enforcement.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.

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