By CATHERINE MASTERS
New Zealanders have been accused of "copping out" as a nation over the dismal state of child health.
Health professionals have challenged the public to stop burying their heads in the sand.
Speaking about Well Child Week, a campaign dedicated to the prevention of illness, Dr Nikki Turner, head of the Auckland-based Immunisation Advisory Centre, said the public should be yelling and screaming about the country's lousy record.
"We are ignoring our children. We have children with permanent brain damage from iron deficiency, dying from vaccine-preventable diseases, teeth falling out by the age of 5, school dropouts from unrecognised deafness, children landing up as criminals and on the scrap heap.
"Many adult diseases start in childhood - heart disease, diabetes, poor social outcomes, unemployment, liver cancer from hepatitis B ...
"Now why the hell is there not a public outcry about it? Why is the public not yelling louder for preventive child health."
Last night, the care group Barnardos highlighted child neglect and abuse as it launched its annual appeal. Chief executive Ian Calder said research showed that child-focused support for families could dramatically change levels of neglect and abuse and the quality of parenting.
Barnardos, the police and social service agencies believed child neglect and abuse were underacknowledged and under-reported in New Zealand, with statistics only representing the worst cases, he said.
Mr Calder said emotional neglect was a particular worry, with a recent Barnardos survey showing more than 40 per cent of 798 children suffered significantly from this form of abuse.
Other areas of concern included the impact of violence on young lives and the continued prevalence of inadequate supervision for children. Some 16 per cent of those surveyed had been physically abused, 30 per cent had witnessed abuse of others and 19.5 per cent had been left at home unsupervised.
Herald files are brimming with the latest horror statistics - from the high rates of Third World disease to the paper's comprehensive 1997 series on child abuse, health and poverty.
Dr Dwayne Crombie, who runs Waitemata Health and used to head Auckland's regional child health team, says no amount of publicity seems to change attitudes. He is staggered that the police shooting of a Waitara man just over a week ago brought the country to a standstill - "everyone is [still] talking about it." But when child health statistics came out, or another child was beaten to death, people looked the other way.
"I think that says everything about the fact the community does not think child health is important - we are a total bloody cop-out as a nation.
"At the end of the day people do not talk about it, like they can talk about other tragedies, and we certainly do not put our money where our mouth is, quite frankly."
Dr Crombie said that despite the grim statistics, child neglect and abuse were never taken on board as serious political issues.
Dr Turner said there were good programmes under way in some areas, but the approach was piecemeal.
The public outcry had to be loud enough to force politicians to make long-term changes - and the public had to give them permission to plan way ahead of their three-year parliamentary term, she said.
"Joe Bloggs should be saying it is unacceptable that our children are suffering such high degrees of medical and social diseases and they should be saying it in every single avenue they have.
"They should be saying it at their ante-natal group, to their health providers, to their GP, to their local newspaper, at their street barbecues.
"At their local council they should be looking for every opportunity to say we do not care for kids in this country, let's turn it round."
Health Minister Annette King agreed the country should be ashamed of its child health but said changes would soon be seen.
It was time to stop looking at individual health needs and look at a population health approach where targets were set and measured to make sure they were being achieved, she said.
"We have said that you need a New Zealand health strategy. That is a document that has just been written by the health sector itself. It is not written by the Health Funding Authority or somebody outside the sector."
The document set goals - for example, to reduce asthma and banish disparities between Maori and Pacific Island health compared to other groups.
It was due to be released for public consultation next month and would become a blueprint for change, Mrs King said.
Dr Ian Hassall, spokesman for the child lobby group Children's Agenda, has long been agitating for MPs to establish a children's policy and said that now looked hopeful.
"But the more politicians believe there are people out there - like voters - breathing down their necks, the better off we are."
By CATHERINE MASTERS