Smart medicine keeps murder rate low

Violence has soared, but today's victims are more likely to survive, reports Roger Dobson
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The Independent Online
Britain's murder rate would be at least treble what it is now but for improvements in medicine and the growing skills of surgeons and paramedics, medical and legal experts believe.

Many people who are now charged with attempted murder or wounding would, several years ago, have been facing a murder charge, as their victims' lives would not have been saved.

Latest crime figures for the past 20 years show that while the murder rate has increased slightly, from 616 to 745, attempted murder cases have shot up from 155 to 634, and woundings to endanger life have doubled from 5,885 to 10,445.

"The murder rate is artificially low now," said Professor Bernard Knight, the leading Home Office pathologist who has been involved in a number of high profile cases, including the Fred West murders in Gloucester.

"People say there were far more murders in the old days, but the woundings that happen now would have been murders then. If you look at the rise in murder rate it is very small, but look at the wounding figures and the graph goes up 45 degrees. If that number of woundings had occurred years ago the murder rate would have been massive."

Medical improvements are thought to have had the biggest impact for victims of stabbings and shootings and there are a number of cases of people surviving being knifed through the heart.

"The hospital did have one case where a man was stabbed in the heart and had a cardiac arrest," said Dr Mark Prescott, consultant accident and emergency surgeon at the North Staffordshire Infirmary. "There was a very rapid assessment of his injuries and an immediate operation in the accident and emergency department. The speed of getting to hospital was critical."

Professor Russell Dobash, professor of criminology at Manchester University, said: "Swift medical intervention is no doubt saving lives now. We know from a very good historical document that in 13th century Oxford the homicide rate was astronomical compared to now, and you could argue that the lack of medical intervention was important. People died not just of wounds in a direct way but because of complications."

Dr Lance Workman, psychologist at the University of Glamorgan, said: "The murder rate here is considerably lower than many other countries, including South Africa, the USA and Russia. Based on the crime figures here our murder rate could quite easily be threefold if doctors were not saving so many people."

Profesor Knight added: "The rate now would be probably several times higher, but there is no way of quantifying it. I have had cases where I have been asked by the police in the morning to get ready for a post mortem that night, and the victims has then walked out of the hospital. People survive being stabbed in the heart now whereas years ago they died from a stab wound to the arm because of sceptis or loss of blood."

At least two other men, both of whom were stabbed through the heart have also survived the attacks because of prompt medical attention.