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UK lagging behind other countries on child health, research reveals

After many years of progress, health outcomes for babies and young children in the UK are now stalling in several key areas like infant mortality and immunisation levels.

Furthermore, we are lagging behind most other high-income countries on mortality, breastfeeding and obesity rates, says the first ever international analysis looking at UK child health measures over time in comparison with 14 other comparable countries.

The research, published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), is based on analysis of 16 child health measures in 14 OECD countries between the early 2000s and the last year for which data are comparable.

The report, written by paediatrician and Nuffield Trust Visiting Fellow Dr Ronny Cheung, concludes that despite some impressive progress in recent decades, the UK remains a long way short of its stated ambition to be an international leader in fostering a healthy start for children.

To tackle this, the Nuffield Trust and RCPCH say that Governments in the UK must do more to improve maternal and antenatal health promotion, address health and socioeconomic inequalities, and protect public health budgets.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Child health outcomes have improved across nine of the 16 areas examined over the past decade, including reductions in the rate of infant deaths, increases in cancer survival, and a rise in the rate of immunisation.
  • Yet the rates of deaths for babies under a year old and tiny babies under 28 days have plateaued since 2013. In 2014, the UK had the fourth highest infant mortality rate among all comparable countries. Improvements in life expectancy have stalled since 2011.
  • The UK still lags behind countries like Sweden, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands on the uptake of measles vaccinations. Uptake of vaccines for illnesses like whooping cough and meningitis have all dropped in the past year.
  • Rates of breastfeeding are among the lowest in the world, with just 34% of babies in the UK receiving any breast milk at six months in 2010 compared with 62.5% in Sweden.
  • The UK has considerably more overweight or obese children than the average amongst high-income countries and in 2013 it had one of the highest proportions of overweight girls aged 2-19, at 29% – second only to the US.

The report also looks at social determinants of health. It finds that while the UK has a comparatively low rate of child income poverty using an OECD definition, the proportion of children in relative income poverty is now back to levels last seen in 2009/10. The UK also has the second highest proportion of children in households where no adult is working.

Report author Dr Ronny Cheung said: “While international comparisons of health outcomes should be handled with care, this research has an unequivocal message: we must do much better for our children and young people.

“The recent changes to the UK’s trajectory on life expectancy, premature deaths and immunisation should set alarm bells ringing for policymakers about the effects of cuts to public health and early years services.”

Dr Russell Viner, President of the RCPCH, added: “We want to see the UK Government develop a comprehensive cross-departmental child health strategy, which includes a ‘health in all policies’ approach to policy making.

“It’s also crucial that some of the biggest threats to child health are tackled boldly; for example tighter restrictions on junk food advertising to tackle obesity, the reinstatement of child poverty reduction targets and crucially the reversal of damaging public health cuts.”


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