Wealth gap leaves our youngest at most risk

By Errol Kiong, Jarrod Booker

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Children have been left behind in the economic prosperity enjoyed by New Zealand over recent years, child health advocates say.

They are urging politicians to reconsider the use of money for initiatives such as tax cuts, and what it could do to improve the health of children - those suffering most where poverty exists.

A damning report into the health of New Zealand children released yesterday by the Paediatric Society and pulling together the "jigsaw" of all available data on child health paints a grim picture of disparity.

Despite some bright spots, the report describes a clear emerging trend, with those living in poverty significantly more likely to suffer.

Marked ethnic disparities are also apparent between Maori and Pacific Island children, and their European and Asian counterparts.

It emerged in the report that New Zealand's hospital admission rates for childhood skin infections have increased to double those in Australia and the United States. Serious skin infections are common in overcrowded households.

Vaccine-preventable diseases such as whooping cough continue to occur at rates higher than other developed countries.

Immunisation targets of having 95 per cent of children fully immunised at 2 years stood at 77 per cent in 2005.

Admission rates were much higher for those living in the most deprived New Zealand households.

Children living below the poverty line were also more likely to have respiratory problems, exposure to household smoking, and abuse.

"The overall picture painted by this work is not a pretty one," said Paediatric Society president Nick Baker.

"By giving personal [tax] cuts, will that make it easier to invest in our children? I would suggest it would make it harder. As a nation we have to decide - do we invest in our children and have a smaller tax cut? Or how do we do it? A concerted investment in our children and young people from many sectors and organisations is essential now."

Public Health Association director Dr Gay Keating said the report showed that there was still an "underclass" of children and young people with poorer health.

GP Nikki Turner said the overwhelming message from the reports was that the strongest risk factor for getting sick was being poor.

"We have been in an era of very strong economic growth in the last few years, and our hospital data for our children's health has not got better. The kids are missing out on the economic prosperity."

But Dr Turner, speaking on behalf of child health coalition Kia Mataara Well Health, said those statistics could be turned around.

"We know how to do it. Instead we wring our hands every time another child pays the awful price for living in poverty. We need to significantly redistribute our health resources so that funding goes where it's needed."

Diana Lennon, professor of population, child and youth health at Auckland University, said solutions were in people's grasp. Refurbishment of Housing New Zealand homes in Manukau had shown an 87 per cent decrease in bronchiolitis, an acute viral infection of the lungs, among young children, she said.

Child Poverty Action Group spokesman Mike O'Brien said policy changes over the past two decades had undermined the incomes of the poorest families.

Health Minister David Cunliffe said the framework to monitor and evaluate child and youth health developed as part of this project would help guide district health boards in determining health needs of their populations.

"Improving the health of our children and youth therefore requires a concerted effort on the part of a wider range of sectors than just health."

Current initiatives in the health and social sectors were already providing significant health gains.

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