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UK child health near bottom in Europe

Alarming gap between rich and poor jeopardising children’s health, warns College

Louise Prime

Thursday, 26 January 2017

An alarming gap between rich and poor is jeopardising UK children’s health, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) warned this morning. Its latest report revealed that despite some improvements in the health of UK children over past decades, the UK has one of the highest rates of child mortality in western Europe. The BMA said the UK is failing many of its children, who should not be paying with their health for the economic downturn.

The RCPCH reported in The State of Child Health that almost one in five children in the UK is living in poverty, and that inequality is blighting their lives – deprivation is strongly associated with higher levels of child mortality, child obesity and smoking during pregnancy, and with lower rates of breastfeeding. The College report showed that:

  • The UK ranks 15 out of 19 western European countries on infant mortality; infant mortality is more than twice as high in the lowest socio-economic groups as in the highest.
  • The prevalence of smoking during pregnancy in the UK is much higher than in many European countries and strongly associated with deprivation. In Scotland, 25.9% of women in the most deprived areas acknowledged smoking following the birth of their baby, against 3.3% in the least deprived areas. Child smoking is also much more prevalent among children from the most deprived areas.
  • Breastfeeding rates in England and Scotland have barely improved since records began in 1975, and not at all in the past five years; they are lower than in many other comparable high-income countries. Across the UK, 46% of mothers in the most deprived areas breastfed compared with 65% in the most affluent areas.
  • Across England, Scotland and Wales more than one in five children in the first year of primary school are overweight or obese. In 2015-16, 40% of children in England’s most deprived areas were overweight or obese, compared with 27% in the most affluent areas.

Chair of the BMA’s board of science Professor Parveen Kumar said: “It is clear that the UK is still failing many children ... Children should not pay the price for the economic downturn.”

She said: “It has fallen to scholars and welfare charities to count the cost of cuts [to vital public services]. This is why there should be a mandatory requirement for all government departments and public bodies to assess the impact of new policies to see how they will affect the health of our children.”

The RCPCH is calling for each UK Government to: develop a coordinated child health and wellbeing strategy; adopt a ‘child health in all policies’ approach; ban advertising of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt in all broadcast media before 9pm; and develop cross-departmental support for breastfeeding. It also demands an expansion of national programmes to measure infants’ and children’s height and weight; a reversal of public health cuts in England; minimum unit alcohol pricing in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland; extension of the ban on smoking in public places to schools, playgrounds and hospitals; prohibition of the marketing of electronic cigarettes to children and young people; and national public health campaigns to promote good nutrition and exercise before, during and after pregnancy.

College president Professor Neena Modi said: “It is tragic that the future health and happiness of a significant and growing number is in jeopardy because of an alarming gap between rich and poor. ... The UK is one of the richest countries in the world; we can and must do better, for the sake for each individual, and that of the nation as a whole.”

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