Combating a Rising Child Mortality Rate

Cadets with Safety City participants in an indoor gymnasium setting

In 2021, the average child mortality rate in Franklin County was the highest it had been in at least 15 years – nearly 36 children per 100,000 residents. About half of the deaths were from medical causes, like disease.

But significant numbers of deaths were caused by preventable injuries. Firearms, vehicle crashes, poisonings, fires. In fact, the leading cause of death for children from 1 to 14 years of age across the United States is unintentional injuries.

Child mortality is a key measure of a community’s overall health in Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s innovative initiative called Pediatric Vital Signs. Along with other metrics like kindergarten readiness, obesity and suicide rates, the Pediatric Vital Signs project measures child mortality and then implements strategies to make a difference.

To that end, Nationwide Children’s is working with the City of Columbus to reintroduce a proven injury-prevention curriculum that was last seen inside the city limits in the 1980s: Safety City.

“When Nationwide Children’s showed us the data and proposed that we partner on Safety City, we felt like we really had to do it,” says Matthew Smydo, executive director of Columbus’ Office of Education. “Many of our suburban neighbors have the program, and we need to make sure that the young children of our city have the same kind of access to this injury-preventing and life-saving education.”

Safety City (sometimes called Safety Town) has been around for decades in central Ohio, but almost entirely in middle-to-upper-middle class suburbs like Bexley, New Albany and Worthington. The program is designed for children who are approximately 5, 6 and 7 years old, and focuses on preventing some of the most common causes of injury. The curriculum can change depending on the ages and neighborhoods, though it usually focuses on areas including bike safety, drowning prevention and water safety, firearm safety, household chemical safety and safely approaching animals and pets.

Nationwide Children’s used geographic mortality data, along with its experience in addressing infant mortality through CelebrateOne, to determine pilot project sites, says Katie Higgins, MS, project manager of Infant and Child Wellness at Nationwide Children’s. The city helped secure two sites each in two neighborhoods: the Hilltop YMCA and Wedgewood Middle School in the Hilltop neighborhood; and St. Stephens Community House and Linden Park Preschool in the Linden neighborhood.

“Access was key for this to work,” says Higgins. “We needed places that were walkable and places that families are familiar with and trust. We wanted to make sure that there was enough indoor space so that weather wouldn’t affect the education. We ended up with some great spaces.”

The programs will run in July and August, with Columbus firefighters, police officers and public health officials partnering with Nationwide Children’s staff members as instructors. Children will spend approximately four hours each day for four days learning about safety, with plenty of break and play time to keep the mostly kindergarten-aged students occupied, says Higgins.

As with all interventions related to Pediatric Vital Signs, the partners will then work to measure the ways that behavior changes and improve the program based on what they learn, say both Smydo and Higgins. Even with 30 or so children signed up for each four-day session, it’s clear that the team needs to work on its outreach tactics in future years so that more children can benefit.

“Every neighborhood in Columbus is different, and we need to approach each of them in somewhat different ways,” says Smydo. “From my perspective, every neighborhood should have a Safety City program to help our children survive and thrive.”