Although teen health concerns often focus on pregnancy rates, a new report from the World Health Organization suggests that far greater dangers lurk. WHO's "Health for the world’s adolescents" has identified car crashes as the number one cause of death, with some 330 teens dying each and every day. HIV/AIDS and suicide rank as the second and third most common causes of fatality worldwide and, overall, 1.3 million children between the ages of 10 and 19 died during 2012.

Yet, how a teen dies seems to be determined to a large extent by their sex. Car accidents and violence, which is fifth on the list of top causes of death, more commonly kill boys than girls, while diarrheal diseases, which is sixth on the list, and endocrine, blood, and immune disorders, which collectively appear in the tenth spot on the list, impact girls more often than boys.

World Health Organization
Graphic courtesy of the World Health Organization World Health Organization

“Adolescence is one of the most rapid phases of human development,” the authors state in the report, noting, however, that “biological maturity precedes psychosocial maturity.” Girls are commonly seen as "more mature" than boys, yet in truth they are the ones who may be more vulnerable to and most profoundly affected by a lagging psychological development. For example, complications linked to pregnancy and childbirth is the second leading cause of death for a subset of girls between the ages of 15 and 19. The WHO report shows that 11 percent of all births worldwide are to girls in that group, the vast majority residing in low- and middle-income countries.

Although rates of pregnancy among girls at this age have decreased since 1990, WHO continues to be concerned as the information gathered for this report is incomplete. After all, only 84 percent of the 109 countries reviewed by the authors give some attention to adolescents. The authors suggest more countries follow the example set by India, “whose new adolescent health strategy addresses a broader spectrum of health issues affecting adolescents, including mental health, nutrition, substance use, violence, and noncommunicable diseases, in addition to sexual and reproductive health.”

Finally, HIV/AIDS remains a key theme in the WHO report. The overall number of HIV-related deaths is down a solid 30 percent since peaking eight years ago, however more than two million adolescents are living with HIV and estimates suggest deaths caused by the virus are rising. This increase has mainly affected sub-Saharan Africa, where only 10 percent of men and 15 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are even aware of their HIV status.