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Hospitalisations linked to poverty must be reduced

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says that high rates of childhood bronchiectasis evidenced in the latest report from the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation, should provide the motivation for Government to prioritise spending with children’s health in mind this year.

But targeting specific illnesses alone will not provide the solution to the shameful problem of a high incidence of poverty-related hospitalisations.

There are more than 40,000 hospital admissions of children in New Zealand every year with illnesses that often have their roots in poverty and unhealthy housing, and could be prevented.

According the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation report, the rates of bronchiectasis, a disease which results from chronic respiratory illness, more than doubled from 2000 to 2015.

CPAG health spokesperson, Professor Asher, says that New Zealand children experience a particularly heavy burden of respiratory diseases, including pneumonia, asthma, bronchiolitis (a severe viral chest infection) and bronchiectasis.

“These diseases are much more likely to affect children living in poverty. Bronchiectasis is a particularly severe chronic disease that leads to lifelong health problems.

“In particular the link to poor housing conditions is crucial, for example the coroner linked the death in 2014 of Emma-Lita Bourne from pneumonia to her very cold damp house.”

“Cold, damp houses and poor nutrition make a child more susceptible to illnesses, particularly for children under five whose immune systems are not fully developed, while illnesses spread much more easily through overcrowded houses. Parents may be unable to take sick leave to care for ill children for fear of losing income and tax credit supports,” says Professor Asher.

“As well as severe acute illnesses such as pneumonia, chronic illnesses such as bronchiectasis may worsen enough to require hospitalisation, for many children.”  

The Government has been effective at reducing the incidence of rheumatic fever through its campaign to raise awareness and through throat swabbing in schools, but targeting a single illness is not the solution to reducing the number of hospitalisations for severe respiratory illnesses this winter.

Of foremost urgency is increasing the supply of affordable healthy housing.

CPAG says that ensuring that all families are equipped with the incomes they need to effectively heat their houses and to provide all their children’s basic needs on a regular basis is imperative.

Professor Innes Asher says that extending the $72.50 of the Working for Families In-Work Tax Credit to all low-income families irrespective of their number of hours of paid work would give immediate relief for many families, and may help reduce the number of hospital admissions.

“An extra $72.50 each week could provide many families the ability to take time out of work in order to care for sick children, to heat their homes effectively and to provide the right kind of nutrition to support healthy immune systems,” says Professor Asher.