15.03.18

Britain ‘a long way short’ of developed countries on infant mortality and childhood obesity

The UK is lagging behind peers in child health, according to new research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The research is the first ever international analysis to look at UK child health measures over time and has revealed that health outcomes for babies and young children in the UK are stalling in several key areas, including infant mortality and immunisation levels.

Britain is also lagging behind most other high-income countries on mortality, breastfeeding and obesity rates.

The study, published by the Nuffield Trust and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) compared the UK to 14 other comparable countries.

It looks at 16 child health measures since the early 2000s, presenting a broad look at child health outcomes, spanning life expectancy, nutrition, immunisations and deaths in early childhood.

Nuffield Trust visiting fellow and author of the report, Dr. Ronny Cheung, concluded that the UK remains “a long way short” of its ambition to be an international leader in fostering a healthy start for children.

In order to tackle this, the Nuffield Trust and RCPCH has said that the UK government must do more to improve maternal and antenatal health promotion, address health and socioeconomic inequalities, and protect health budgets.

Despite improvements in the rate of infant deaths, cancer survival and the vaccination uptake, the number of deaths for babies under a year old and tiny babies has plateaued since 2013.

In 2014, the UK had the fourth highest infant mortality rate among all comparable countries, and improvements in life expectancy have stalled since 2011.

The UK continues to lag behind countries like Sweden, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands on the uptake of measles vaccinations, and uptake of vaccinations for diseases such as whooping cough have all dropped in the past year.

Breast feeding rates in the UK are among the lowest in the world, with only 34% of babies in the UK receiving any breast milk at six months old in 2010, compared with 62% in Sweden.

Obesity affects more UK children than average in 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 USA.

Although the UK has comparatively low levels of child poverty, the proportion of children in relative poverty has slumped to the levels last seen in 2009-10.

Commenting on his findings, Dr. 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.”

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said that child health is “notably absent from much policy thinking” and that the UK is falling behind its peers when it comes to several vital measures.

“It’s time for policymakers to take child health seriously before our somewhat mediocre international standing becomes even worse,” he added.

President of the RCPCH, Dr. Russell Viner, said that the little political attention that child health gets is a “real failure of the system.”

“Investing in child health makes both moral and economic sense – for every £1 you put in, you get an average of £10 back in terms of future productivity.”

He called on the government to develop a “comprehensive cross-departmental child health strategy, which includes a ‘health in all policies’ approach to policy making.“

David Buck, senior fellow for public health and inequalities at the King’s Fund, called the findings “deeply worrying.”

He added: “Given that figures from the Office for National Statistics recently showed we have also slipped down the international rankings on neonatal mortality compared to similar countries, we know we can do better.

“The government urgently needs to set out how it plans to address this.

“It remains disturbing that babies from lower socio-economic groups are much more likely to die than those with affluent parents, and this highlights the human cost of the widening of health inequalities over the past few years.’

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