Preventable, avoidable diseases are still putting our most vulnerable children in hospital.
Cure Kids’ annual State of Child Health Report released today confirmed very high rates of costly, yet often preventable, diseases in Aotearoa. Yet as a country we could protect children from these diseases with better policies.
"Poor living conditions make our children much more likely to end up in hospital because of respiratory conditions, dental disease, skin infections, and rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease" says Professor Nikki Turner, General Practitioner, and health spokesperson for Child Poverty Action Group.
The report found that up until the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, hospitalisations due to respiratory conditions, such as acute bronchiolitis (wheezy bronchitis) and asthma had increased; nearly one third of all Year-8 children had evidence of tooth decay with increasing rates of children hospitalised for severe decay; and serious skin infections made up nearly 4% of hospital admissions for children.
For the first time, the report investigated data for rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease and found that Pacific children were 140 times more likely, and Māori children were almost 50 times more likely, to be hospitalised for rheumatic fever than children of other ethnicities. These extremely high rates demonstrate that much more needs to be done to prevent rheumatic fever.
"While the report is a snapshot into the state of healthcare for children in Aotearoa, it does not go far enough" says Turner.
"There are many factors at play here, especially for Māori and Pacific children who experience intergenerational poverty, putting them at higher risk of preventable disease and death" says Turner.
"The bald statistics does not tell the full story of the enormous financial and emotional pressure having a sick child also puts on the rest of the family. Parents, siblings and whānau all carry the additional care work, ultimately leading to flow-on effects for the whole family" says Turner.
"The figures outlined in the report are to 2020. While the pandemic lockdowns temporarily reduced the burden of respiratory illness, the underlying drivers have not changed so we expect a return to pre-pandemic levels. We have already seen a large outbreak of bronchiolitis in 2021 following the borders temporarily opening, and we are seeing a rapid rise in children being hospitalised with the flu. We expect to see more health-related issues highlighted as outcomes of the pandemic are realised" says Turner.
"These conditions are only part of the wider picture affecting children in poverty. There are other important physical and mental effects on children living in poverty, including, poor nutrition, housing conditions, stressed households, transport issues and access to healthcare services leading to lower rates of vaccination" says Turner.
"Poor nutrition, which has been exacerbated by the rising cost of living, is significantly under-recognised for its effect on health. A poorly nourished child is more likely to get sick, and related illnesses are more severe. Currently income for the poorest families in Aotearoa is inadequate to reliably feed their children healthy food" says Turner.
"Housing conditions continue to be grim for many children in poverty. Overcrowding makes the transmission of infectious diseases such as flu and COVID much more likely. Poor quality housing with damp, mould and inadequate heating puts children at higher risk of severe and repeated respiratory illnesses. Insecure housing means some children move frequently which has an impact on social stability and schooling as well as access and engagement with WellChild and primary care services" says Turner.
"Job insecurity and low-paid employment coupled with rising fuel cost limits many families’ ability to access the health and social services they need" says Turner.
"We are yet to see any significant improvement in these child health outcomes that are directly linked to poverty despite numerous government interventions and commitments. Much greater steps in government policies are needed to lift children out of poverty, poor housing and nutrition and into good health. Māori and Pacific children need to be prioritised as they are suffering the most. We need policies that improve all families’ ability to buy nutritious food and we need to accelerate social housing new builds to at least 5,000 per year so that we have a better chance at giving all children the best start in life with a warm, dry, secure home they deserve" says Turner.
Professor Nikki Turner is a General Practitioner, and health spokesperson for Child Poverty Action Group
- Send us your thoughts & feedback on this issue