UK’s child mortality rate shows growing poverty gap

Child deaths in Britain “disproportionately” affect the poorest in society, leading children’s doctors have said.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said the nation needs to get to grips with the growing gap between rich and poor to have any impact on high mortality rates.

Meanwhile public health policies to reduce child deaths are “piecemeal”, according to the RCPCH’s latest report.

Youngsters in the UK are at a higher risk of premature death than their peers in western Europe, the Why Children Die report says.

The document, complied alongside experts from the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), says that 3,000 babies died before the age of one and 2,000 youngsters aged one to 19 died during 2012.

Many of the deaths among babies occurred because of pre-term delivery and low birth weights, while injury is the most frequent cause of death among children over the age one one.

There are “marked social inequalities” in death rates, the report states. For instance, mothers who smoke during pregnancy, which can lead to a plethora of adverse health problems for youngsters, are most likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The authors of the report said more must be done to tackle inequalities in deprivation – including withdrawing the new cap on welfare spending.

They said that many child deaths could be prevented though a combination of changes in society, political engagement and improved training for healthcare workers.

Other actions which could be taken include; introducing a 20mph road limit in built-up areas to prevent road deaths, better education about health at school and the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol.

The report says that health services do not always deliver optimal care for children and young people, and lives may be lost as a result.

The authors called for better training for healthcare staff to ensure they are confident of spotting symptoms among sick children.

“We know there are things that all healthcare professionals can be doing better to help reduce avoidable child deaths – whether that’s early detection of problems, safe prescribing or using effective tools such as asthma plans to manage conditions,” said RCPCH president Dr Hilary Cass.

“But if we’re to make real inroads into reducing these tragic mortality figures, we cannot do it alone. It’s time that political parties of all colours took health inequalities seriously.

“At the moment, policies to reduce child mortality are too piecemeal, not targeted and fail to address the underlying causes.”

Dr Ingrid Wolfe, lead author of the report and child public health expert, added: ” Social and economic inequalities are matters of life and death for children. Countries that spend more on social protection have lower child mortality rates. The messages are stark and crucial. Poverty kills children. Equity saves lives. Social protection is life-saving medicine for the population.”

Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive of the NCB, said: “There are currently 3.5 million children living in poverty across the UK, that’s one in four; twice that of many industrialised nations. This report clearly illustrates the direct impact persistent inequality in our society has on the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and young people.

“Government needs to bring forward a revised child poverty strategy that has tackling health inequality as a central focus to prevent the disproportionate number of deaths amongst children in low income families.

“Equally important is enhancing the wellbeing and resilience of our children through education, and ensuring that every child grows up in a place that is healthy and safe.

“Now is the time to act, to ensure that all our children have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and live long and healthy lives, regardless of their circumstances.”

Dr Ann Hoskins, director of children and young people for Public Health England (PHE), added: “It is paramount we all work together to reduce the numbers of children who die or suffer preventable illness and injury.

“PHE firmly believes that good health and wellbeing is based upon having a good start in life and we are working with partners at a local and national level to further develop the resources and support, to encourage healthier lifestyles in children and young people.

“PHE is working with local authorities to support improvements in outcomes for early years, reduce rates of smoking in pregnancy, teenage pregnancies, injuries in the home, and improve emotional health and wellbeing.”

Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said: “Our children and young people deserve the very best start in life. As a result of our investment in children, we have seen a 23% rise in the number of health visitors and have invested £54 million in mental health support for young people.

“We are also investing more in training so that GPs have stronger integrated skills to care for children and young people with specialist long-term conditions in the community.

“We recognise that more needs to be done, but it is our ambition to make health inequalities a thing of the past.”

Labour’s shadow public health minister Luciana Berger said: “This report reveals that preventable child deaths are more likely to affect the poorest families. That is an appalling fact and a tragedy not befitting a civilised country.

“At present, the Government is heading away from the solutions offered by this report. David Cameron has shelved plans for a minimum alcohol price, reduced the support for stop-smoking services and failed to deliver the new midwives he promised.

“David Cameron must explain why children in the UK are more likely to die prematurely than elsewhere in Europe and immediately tackle these health inequalities.”