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UK is 'failing' children as death rates rise, poverty surges and health declines at 'alarming' rate

Children in the UK have faced the pandemic, cost of living and climate crisis. That is harming their health and it's only going to get worse unless urgent action is taken, researchers have warned

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The poor health of children has been linked to high rates of poverty. Image: Unsplash

Children in the UK are being “failed” as death rates are rising, poverty is surging and healthcare services are under pressure, an “alarming” report has revealed.

The Academy of Medical Sciences has found an “appalling decline” in children’s health in the UK.

Infant survival rates are worse than in 60% of developed countries. There were 3,743 child deaths in the year ending March 2023, an estimated rate of 31.8 deaths per 100,000 children, according to the National Child Mortality Database.

It is an 8% rise on the previous year and the highest number of deaths since the database started in 2019.

This is at least in part due to factors such as poverty and the rising cost of living. The number of children living in extreme poverty tripled between 2019 and 2022.

Children’s mental health services are under pressure as demand has soared, and services are particularly limited for infants. Around 42% of areas in England do not accept referrals for children aged two or under.

More than a fifth of five-year-old children are overweight or obese, with those living in deprived areas of the UK twice as likely to be obese than those living in more affluent areas.

One in four children are struggling with tooth decay, with dental extractions due to preventable tooth decay a top reason for hospital admissions in children.

Professor Helen Minnis, co-chair of the report, said: “Every child has the right to a safe and healthy childhood. It is shameful that the UK is failing to provide this. Child deaths are rising, infant survival lags behind comparable countries and preventable physical and mental health issues plague our youngest citizens.

“The science is clear– we are betraying our children. Unless the health of babies and young children is urgently prioritised, we condemn many to a life of poorer health and lost potential. The time to act is now.”

The situation is only expected to get worse. The pandemic, cost of living crisis, climate change have all led and will continue to exacerbate growing inequality.

In Bradford, it was found that air pollution is linked to 33% of childhood asthma cases, while in London, 7% of all childhood hospital admissions for asthma between 2017 and 2019 were attributable to air pollution.

Experts are calling for urgent action from the government to protect children, with research showing that the early years of a child’s life are crucial for laying the foundations for long-term physical and mental health.

Professor Andrew Pollard, another co-chair of the report, added: “There are huge challenges for the NHS today driven by the growing pressures on health and social care from an ageing population. Even more disconcerting is the evidence cited in our Academy of Medical Sciences report of an appalling decline in the health of our children, which makes for an even more bleak outlook for their future.

“There is clear evidence in the report that tackling childhood health conditions, addressing inequalities and providing early years social support can change the future of health and prosperity. It is time for big thinking and clear strategy by government to protect the health and life chances of our children today and transform the future of our nation.”

Data from the Royal Foundation and the London School of Economics has revealed that the cost to society of addressing the issues that might have been avoided through action in early childhood is at least £16.13 billion each year.

This is likely to be an underestimate, according to the researchers at the Academy of Medical Sciences.

The report recommends that in all UK nations, the government, NHS and local authorities work together to address the decline in the child and family health workforce. It proposes the development of integrated care systems to overcome fragmentation of services for the early years by coordinating across the NHS, community care and local authorities.

Unicef is backing the calls for early intervention. Claire O’Meara, director of advocacy at the Unicef UK, said: “The first few years of a child’s life are vital for their development. This critical report further strengthens evidence that investment in this age group leads to huge lifelong benefits to children as well as economic benefits to wider society.

“It also makes it clear the government needs to act on this evidence now to reverse already worrying declines in children’s health outcomes. Unicef UK is calling on the UK government to implement a National Baby and Toddler Guarantee to ensure every child is supported to thrive now, and for the future.”

Dr Mike McKean, vice president for Health Policy of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This report provides alarming evidence that the UK is failing too many of its children. We are presiding over a crisis in child health that demands urgent action. As paediatricians, we witness daily the devastating consequences of these systemic failures.

“Without transformative intervention on child health, we condemn generations to a poorer future. The time for excuses is over– government must act decisively to address this crisis.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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