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Widening inequalities jeopardising health of children in Northern Ireland

Draw up child poverty strategy for the Province, say child health experts

Caroline White

Monday, 19 June 2017

The widening gap between rich and poor is jeopardising the health of children in Northern Ireland, warns the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in its latest report* on the state of child health in the UK.

In specific recommendations for the Province, it calls for tighter restrictions on smoking and drinking alcohol, bolder action on obesity, and urgent implementation of a child poverty strategy.

The report, which was drawn up by child health experts with input from children and young people, argues that without interventions to close the gap between rich and poor, and targeted policies to improve child health, Northern Ireland will continue to fail its children when it comes to their health.

The State of Child Health report brings together data for the first time on 25 measures of child health, ranging from specific conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy, through to risk factors including obesity and low breastfeeding rates, and the death rate to provide a snapshot of how the UK’s children are faring when it comes to their health and wellbeing.

It reveals that in Northern Ireland an estimated 23% of children are reported to be living in poverty, and 28% of children are overweight or obese.

Less than 28% of six-week-old babies receive any breast milk – the lowest level in the UK – while smoking kills around 2,300 people a year.

 “We can’t afford to ignore the fact that child health is not as good as it should be in Northern Ireland. Poverty is having a devastating effect on families – with smoking and drinking alcohol, poor mental health, and obesity amongst children and young people all the more likely to affect those from the most deprived backgrounds,” commented Dr Karl McKeever, RCPCH officer for Ireland at the report’s launch last week.

“We’re bringing together experts from across the health sector, and beyond, to agree how child health should be prioritised and how we can ensure these issues are high on the political agenda,” he said.

“The current political vacuum makes it difficult to enact policy change. But ultimately, the state of child health will not improve without bold action from policy makers to ensure that every child – no matter where they are born – has the best possible chance of leading a healthy life,” he added.

The report authors outline a raft of recommendations, which, they say, could have a major impact on improving child health across the Province.

These include: implementation of a child poverty strategy; a ‘child health in all policies’ approach; a ban on smoking in cars when children are present – currently already in place across the other UK nations and the Republic of Ireland; minimum unit pricing for alcohol; and an expansion of the child measurement programme to include children after birth, before school, and in adolescence.

The report also recommends a graduated driving licensing scheme for novice drivers; a regular survey commissioned by the Northern Ireland Executive to identify the prevalence of mental health problems among children and young people to guide the planning of mental health care services; and appropriate mental health support offered in all schools in Northern Ireland.

The report, which was drawn up by child health experts with input from children and young people, argues that without interventions to close the gap between rich and poor, and targeted policies to improve child health, Northern Ireland will continue to fail its children when it comes to their health.

Dr McKeever added: “Many of the illnesses that appear in adults have their roots in childhood, so by investing and intervening early, we’re much more likely to create a healthier population.”

The report will act as a springboard for campaigning activity to ensure child health is a key political priority, says the RCPCH.


* State of Child Health 2017 Recommendations for Northern Ireland. Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, 2017.

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