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New Study Shows Washington, D.C., Murder Rate Is a Public Health Threat

Oct. 23, 2008  

New Study Shows Washington, D.C., Murder Rate Is a Public Health Threat

Blacks, Hispanics in the Nation’s Capital Are Dying Younger Than Whites

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Violent deaths among blacks in the nation’s capital have become a public health epidemic, with murder ranking as the leading cause of years of potential life lost for black men in Washington, D.C., according to a study released today by Public Citizen.

Rather than look at raw mortality rates, the study looked at the “years of potential life lost” (YPLL), which measures premature deaths against an average life expectancy of 70. The study compared the rates of premature death from various causes among whites, blacks and Hispanics in the District, as well as the nation as a whole. The study also compared causes of death and years of life lost between men and women.

The study found a glaring disparity when it came to the homicide rate for blacks, especially men. The statistics show that murders are the second-leading cause of premature deaths among the District population as a whole, primarily because of the homicide rate among black men. Nationally, homicide is ranked as the sixth leading cause of premature death. Cancer is the leading cause of premature death both nationally and in the District.

The District’s gulf between blacks, whites and Hispanics hits home when one considers that in the District, whites and Hispanics typically live longer than they do in the U.S. as a whole. However, that is not the case with blacks, who have a greater rate of years of potential life lost in the District than they do nationally, the study shows.

Among other trends uncovered by the study was a high rate of years of potential life lost from HIV, which ranks as the fifth leading cause of years of potential life lost in the District but does not rank in the top 10 nationally. The study also found that Hispanics had a higher rate of years of potential life lost due to congenital anomalies than either blacks or whites.

Differences in the rate of YPLL between men and women also are significant in the District. Men have almost twice the rate of years of potential life lost as women. The breakdown by cause shows that men have higher rates of YPLL than women for nine of the top 10 causes. And the differences between males and females are particularly marked among Hispanics.

“These numbers show us that the District of Columbia is a city deeply divided along racial and gender lines, in terms of years of preventable life lost,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen.

The study shows a glaring need for the District to commit more resources to combat these causes of premature deaths, Wolfe said.

“The fact that violence is shortening the lives of so many the District residents should be part of the rationale for adopting new measures, such as new regulations that restrict the misuse of firearms within the city,” said Wolfe, who noted that while the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the District’s handgun ban, the ruling did not imply the right to bear arms is absolute.

Annette Ramirez de Arellano, a Public Citizen researcher and expert on health policy, said the city can use the statistics to track disparities and better monitor health outcomes.  

“These data can be used to target specific groups and neighborhoods for early intervention and education,” she said. “The very high rate of birth defects among Hispanics is one example of this.”

The study can be found at: https://www.citizen.org/publications/release.cfm?ID=7612.