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Photo: Andrew Quilty

Every death is a tragedy, and none is more tragic than the death of a child. Last year, the ACT Children and Young People Death Review Committee was established under the Children and Young People Act 2008. The Committee is charged with the solemn duty of reporting annually on the deaths in the ACT of children under the age of 18.

This year, the committee releases its second report. It is again sombre reading, reporting on 105 child deaths recorded in the ACT over the past five years. The majority (60 per cent) of these deaths were of children under 1 year old, and most of those were due to extreme prematurity. Seventy seven per cent of the 105 deaths occurred in a hospital, and 61 per cent of all deaths where due to medical causes. Twenty-nine deaths (27.6 per cent) were subject to a coronial inquiry.

Statistics can have the unfortunate habit of desensitising us to the harsh reality of our subject matter. As these figures are compiled, collated and considered, it is vital that we pay due respect to these young, short lives and the families who carry the burden of loss.

It is also important that we view the figures with an impartial eye, and with the objective of identifying avenues for improvement; the saddest fact being that some deaths could have been prevented.

One of the main roles of the committee is to make recommendations about policies and improvements to services that may reduce the number of deaths and improve the lives of this group. For that reason the committee comprises members with expertise in areas such as psychology, paediatrics, epidemiology, children and forensic medicine, public health administration, engineering and child safety products, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people, social work and policing.

The committee considers the results in context of the unique nature of the ACT demographics, while making comparisons with the results reported by similar committees and other states. The recently released report from the NSW Child Death Review Team for example shows some strikingly similar results to those in the ACT, with 61 per cent of all deaths occurring in children less than 1 year old and most of those due to perinatal factors.

Similar review bodies nationally have for example helped to learn from the deaths of young children from low-speed vehicle accidents, pool drownings and poisoning and have advised governments about initiatives that might reduce the number of fatalities. For older teenagers we know that there is more work to do in relation to the extreme dangers associated with, for example, binge drinking and party drugs.

Already many new and prospective parents in the ACT will have seen the results of our initial efforts in raising awareness regarding the dangers of the practice of co-sleeping with a baby. This comes after the committee's release of figures showing that 14 babies under a year old had died over the past decade; deaths that perhaps could have been prevented.

We know there is a great deal more to learn about how to keep children and young people safe as well as the range of health, education, cultural, legal and youth justice, and community and welfare services that are most likely to lead to the next generation of adults being healthier and more resilient.

Deaths are tragic, and in many cases impossible to prevent. Conversely, however, some deaths can be prevented. Information leads to education and it is there that the committee plays its important role. It is then in the hands of the ACT community to listen, heed and respond. It is a responsibility we all share.

Dr Penny Gregory is chairwoman of the ACT Children and Young People Death Review Committee.