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Sick children will be helped by Healthy Homes Bill

With winter now well set in, emergency departments around New Zealand are being inundated by our most vulnerable population- our children. Wheezing, barking coughs, runny noses, laboured breathing; these are typical sights and sounds every year that are almost synonymous with winter. This signals not only the onset of winter but also the inevitable influx of children into hospital who are unwell with respiratory conditions, many of which are avoidable.

Keeping Kids Healthy

Back in 2012, the Government set 10 different targets for the public sector to achieve over a period of five years. In May this year, another six targets have been set. The third of these six targets, called “Keeping kids healthy” sets an ambitious goal of reducing hospital admission rates for avoidable conditions in 0-12 year olds by 25% by the year 2021. They have defined “avoidable conditions” with examples such as dental conditions, respiratory conditions, skin conditions and head injuries. The vast majority of current medical admissions are due to respiratory diseases, with more than 60% of such admissions to hospital between 2008-2012 being attributable to respiratory illnesses.

Avoidable respiratory conditions

It is well known that living in cold and damp housing can increase the body’s physiological stress response, more so if you are elderly, young, or already sick with another health condition. International studies have shown a strong link between substandard housing and poor health. Respiratory viruses replicate more efficiently in cooler temperatures, probably in part due to reducing people’s immune responses to fight infection, which is why you will notice that during winter months there people are more frequently plagued by respiratory illnesses.

How can we reduce respiratory illness amongst children in New Zealand?

By power of deduction, it is obvious that improving the heating and insulation of houses should help reduce the burden of illness caused by respiratory conditions. Indeed, a study conducted in New Zealand and published in 2007 showed that retrofitting insulation can improve health, reduce visits to the GP, and reduce hospital admissions.

Given that more than half of all children who live in relative poverty in New Zealand live in private rental housing, it would make sense to target interventions at this level. If we are able to improve the standard of heating and insulation in rental properties, we should see demonstrable health benefits.

The Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill

This is, in fact, the purpose of the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill, introduced in 2015 by MP Andrew Little. The Bill would make changes to the current Residential Tenancies Act 1986. Whilst currently there are various obligations that landlords must abide by, there are no specific standards requiring the property to be warm and dry. This Bill provides that the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment must set minimum standards of heating and insulation, which are binding on landlords, for every rental home in New Zealand.

If we, as New Zealanders, wish to support the reduction of avoidable hospitalisations of our children, and reach the targets set by the Government of reducing hospitalisations by 25% by 2021, it is obvious that supporting this Bill is an important way to achieve this goal.

With the Bill having just passed its second reading on July 26, it now sits with the Committee of the Whole house to debate each part, and then a third reading will determine whether the Bill can be passed into law. While the date is yet to be confirmed, it is essential for families that we continue to support the Bill in the interim, and encourage members of Parliament to agree to its benefits.