After a century of improving health and survival rates, Britain’s child health services are at a crossroads. Rising levels of obesity and an epidemic of inactivity threaten to undo much of the progress, while stretched resources mean cash must be spent more carefully than ever before. So what lies ahead?
ACCORDING to some experts, Britain’s current generation of young children will be the first in many decades to die at a younger age than their parents. It’s a gloomy outlook that throws into sharp focus the full extent of the potential crisis facing child health.
The battle against deadly infectious diseases that used to wipe out millions worldwide has largely been won in developed nations, thanks to vaccines and higher standards of public health. But the battle against what can arguably be described as self-inflicted modern ailments triggered by unhealthy lifestyles is far from over.
The government’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy, the brainchild of David Cameron when he was in office, was finally delivered in the summer, after repeated delays of a year or more. But it was met with widespread disdain.
It featured no mandatory curbs on junk food advertising and fell short of imposing compulsory sugar reduction in popular children’s foods, favouring a voluntary scheme where industry is encouraged to gradually reduce levels by a fifth over the next five years.
However, the government is going ahead with its sugar tax on soft drinks. The tax will take effect in 2018 and the cash generated invested in sport in schools and breakfast clubs.
Exercise-wise, the plan calls on primary schools to help pupils achieve 60 minutes a day of physical activity – half through PE classes and half through ‘outside school’ activities.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt last year promised the obesity strategy would feature draconian action. Instead, it is a much watered down version of the original blueprint and critics attacked the government for stepping back from imposing tough regulations on the food industry, rather than encouraging it to move in the right direction.
The British Medical Association said it was ‘incredibly disappointing’ that there was no crackdown on food marketing and promotion. Royal College of Physicians president Professor Jane Dacre said the government had come up with a ‘downgraded plan’ that failed to tackle the marketing of ‘sugar-filled and unhealthy foods’. And Professor Neena Modi from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said it was a ‘weak plan’ which promised ‘no bold action’. She added: ‘Obesity kills as surely as smoking; Government took on the tobacco industry effectively, although it was a tough challenge, and can do it again now.’
Government officials said they opted for a voluntary sugar reduction scheme over legislation so the food industry could start taking steps to reduce sugar immediately, rather than waiting for the law to be changed.
One in three children in the UK is overweight or obese. This makes them more likely to be obese as an adult, raising their risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Obesity already costs the NHS more than £4bn every year and Health Service Boss Simon Stevens has warned without drastic action it is going to bankrupt the service.
It is without question the biggest child health problem Britain currently faces.
But it’s not the only one.
Concerns are also mounting about the state of child mental health, with rising numbers being treated for anxiety and depression. Earlier this year, a survey found eight-year olds in England were less happy than those in Estonia, Poland and Turkey, ranking 13th out of 16 countries polled. Only South Korea, Nepal and Ethiopia were worse.
Children said they were unhappy with their looks and physical appearance, school, relationships with teachers and where they lived.
According to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, poverty remains a major factor behind children’s physical and mental health – even in modern Britain. It reckons one in four children – or up to four million in total – live in poverty. Latest figures show almost a quarter of a million children in England alone are receiving care for anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Alarmingly, nearly 12,000 of these were boys and girls aged under five.
Again, experts blame growing pressures on the young, including the need to excel academically, look good and be popular. Other factors such as family breakdown are also thought to be driving more to seek help.
So while the child of today can be protected against the ravages of infectious disease and poor hygiene, the threat from modern lifestyle-related illnesses is every bit as serious.
By Pat Hagan