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Progress has stalled in the UK for many outcome measures of children’s health and wellbeing, or is even in reverse for some – a rarely seen trend in high income countries, a royal college has warned.
The UK was in danger of “failing a generation of children and young people”, said the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health as it published a new report today.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us if we’re to get a grip on the state of child health”
The college has unveiled its State of Child Health 2020, which it says is the largest ever compilation of data on the health of babies, children and young people across all four UK nations.
It covers 28 measures, ranging from specific conditions – such as asthma, epilepsy, and mental health problems – to risk factors for poor health like poverty, low breastfeeding rates and obesity.
Across most indicators, health outcomes were worse for children who lived in deprived areas. Inequalities in some outcomes have widened since the RCPCH’s last similar report in 2017.
It warned that in England and Wales infant mortality was more than twice as high in the most deprived areas, compared with the least deprived areas.
Progress has also been seriously affected by deep cuts to local authority budgets, which are used to finance public health initiatives and community services, noted the college.
The report’s authors highlight that, even where there have been notable improvements in children’s health, the UK was often lagging far behind other countries.
For example, there has been a fall in the number of emergency asthma admission rates, but the UK still has one of the highest mortality rates in Europe for children and young people with asthma.
Regarding other long-term conditions, the report said epilepsy had until recently seen similar falling rates of emergency admissions. But in 2017-18 rates rose slightly in England, Wales and Scotland.
“This report is the only one of its kind to zoom out and look at the full picture and it’s not a pretty sight”
In Scotland, children with epilepsy from the most deprived areas were twice as likely to have an emergency admission to hospital than those from the least deprived, it said.
However, the report noted that there had been continued improvement in blood glucose control among children and young people with type 1 diabetes across all four UK nations.
But overall, it said the UK was fifth from bottom among 27 European countries for infant mortality. In England it stalled between 2013 and 2018 at 3.9 per 1,000 livebirths, rising slightly in 2017 to 4.
The prevalence of children aged 4-5 who are overweight or obese has not improved significantly in any of the four countries since 2006-7, noted the report.
In England, it said the prevalence of severe obesity among 4- to 5-year-olds was almost four times as high in the most deprived areas (3.8%) than the least deprived areas (1%) in 2017-18.
Meanwhile, in 2018, all four UK nations fell short of the 95% World Health Organization target for the second dose of the MMR vaccine.
In 2018, the uptake rates of two doses of MMR vaccine at five years ranged from 86.4% in England, 91.2% in Scotland to 91.8% in Northern Ireland and 92.2% in Wales.
Other indicators focused on social issues, like youth violence and poverty, while long term conditions were also covered by the report.
President of the RCPCH, Professor Russell Viner, said: “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us if we’re to get a grip on the state of child health in the UK.
“This report is the only one of its kind to zoom out and look at the full picture and it’s not a pretty sight. On many vital measures we risk lagging behind other European countries,” he said.
“There some positive signs – teenage pregnancies have fallen hugely, Scotland is leading the way on reducing youth violence, and we’ve made huge strides in the treatment of conditions like diabetes.”
“In many areas of healthcare, we’ve led the rest of the world,” he said. “But we’re in danger of failing a generation if we don’t turn this situation around.”
“This report highlights concerning trends in the health of children and young people across the UK”
He added: “We have the evidence, the experience and the expertise to make real progress in the life of this government. It’s now time to deliver for children and young people.”
Sasha Daly, deputy director of policy and influencing at the Teenage Cancer Trust, said: “This report highlights concerning trends in the health of children and young people across the UK.
“It is completely unacceptable that the health outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds are up to four times worse than those from more advantaged backgrounds.”
She highlighted that it was already known that there were significant variations in incidence and survival rates for 13- to 24-year-olds with cancer, based on geography and deprivation.
“The differing trends in mortality rates for children with cancer across the devolved UK nations, outlined in the report, compounds this issue,” said Ms Daly.
“It is more vital than ever that NHS England deliver the commitments outlined in the long-term plan, as we work towards improving these outcomes.”