Territory suffers accident epidemic

Accidents and injuries kill more Yukon men than both cancer and heart disease. From 1996 to 1999, 26 per cent of male deaths by major causes were…

Accidents and injuries kill more Yukon men than both cancer and heart disease.

From 1996 to 1999, 26 per cent of male deaths by major causes were caused by traumatic injuries.

This rate is three times the national average.

Yukon woman aren’t much safer and are two and a half times more likely to die from traumatic injuries than the average Canadian.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s medical officer of health, wants the epidemic to end.

“We have an active and adventurous population and we should be able to continue to live that way,” said Hanley.

“But we need to do these things more safely and we need to keep injuries in the limelight.”

As a health officer, Hanley sees the injury statistics. As an emergency-room physician, he stitches those injuries back together every day.

“I’ve seen many preventable injuries and also a number of near misses,” he said.

“A lot of concussed bicyclists come in with cracked helmets and you can see that it saved their lives.”

But getting the public behind action on injury prevention has proven to be a challenge, he added.

To raise awareness about the Yukon’s injury epidemic, Hanley has recruited Dr. Robert Conn, the founder of the SmartRisk Foundation, a national organization dedicated to preventing injuries.

Conn trained as a children’s heart surgeon, but his teacher didn’t want his young students learning how to do heart transplants until they knew where the organs came from.

Therefore, Conn was first trained on the harvest team, recovering possible transplants from child donors.

“I had never stopped to think about the donors,” said Conn at a news conference on Monday.

“These donors are young people who are healthy one moment and brain dead the next.”

And these injuries are usually preventable.

“We call these ‘accidents’ and that really influences how people think,” he said.

“It makes it sound like an unavoidable act of fate.

“We all live in a world convinced that these things happen to other people, not to me.”

We need to discuss “accidents” for what they really are: Car crashes, burns, drownings and poisonings.

A great way to change our perception of accidents is with teenagers, said Conn.

“If you ask them, most youth will tell you that safety sucks. It’s for nerds, not cool.”

That’s because we learn safety through rules or “don’t” messages.

Telling a teenager to not do something is like waving a red flag in front of a bull — they’ll go out of their way to prove you wrong, said Conn.

SmartRisk advocates people cast safety in a different light.

It teaches youth to wear seatbelts so they can make the party or to wear helmets so they can get home safely after work.

To make the case, Conn is holding a free public forum tomorrow at the Beringia Centre at 7 p.m.

Hanley hopes the forum will be the first step towards making the Yukon a national safety leader.

The accident and injury statistics include workplace injuries, said Hanley.

“And we all know from watching the numbers in front of the WCB building that workplace injuries are a big part,” he said.

“We also know that young workers are disproportionally affected.

“So we’re looking forward to a lot more collaboration with the workers’ compensation board.”

But it’s hard to get hard data on these injuries, and the doctors couldn’t say why the number of traumatic injuries in the Yukon is so high.

“That’s a question that we’ve been puzzling over for a number of years,” said Hanley.

“But we do know that the problem is shared across the North.”

A number of factors, such as a more independent and risk-taking northern spirit, and a high rate of substance abuse may contribute to the problem.

Also, the northern population tends to be younger, said Conn.

“And this is very much a young disease. Youth are always taking more risks.”

“People make good decisions if they actually see the risk,” Conn added.

“I don’t think people are ignoring this problem. Most of us just don’t see the risk. ”