Failing on children’s health

Dr Mair Parry calls for children’s health to be prioritised in the run up to the 2016 elections.

There’s a lot we can be proud of in Wales. We have world class sportsmen and women and world class entertainers who are great role models for our children. We also have one of the most advanced health systems in the world with fantastic clinicians delivering care that’s free at the point of access, enabling children and their families to receive support at any time, day or night.

Despite having a world class National Health Service, health outcomes across the UK are among the poorest in Western Europe, and children’s health in Wales is falling short of where it should be.

Wales continues to have the worst rates of childhood obesity and smoking during pregnancy in the UK. And child death rates in the most deprived parts of Wales are much higher than in the least deprived. Healthcare services are under severe pressure and demand for children’s specialist mental health support is under particular strain, with referrals doubling over the past four years.

For far too long, children’s health has been slipping down the political priority list with dealing with the challenges of an ageing population being the focus for most of the main parties. We need politicians of all party colours to commit to making child health an equal priority, and with the 2016 elections just over six months away, it is an opportune time for  such commitment.

As a children’s doctor of course you would expect me to call for child health to be a priority but there is much wider support for this. According to a recent poll commissioned by the RCPCH, prioritising child health is something that the Welsh public also support; with over three quarters (78%) of Welsh adults saying that children’s healthcare should be a very important priority for NHS Wales.

‘The catalyst’

Poverty is the catalyst for many of our poor child health outcomes. We know that children living in poverty are more likely to die prematurely, are more likely to be overweight or obese and are more likely to suffer with mental health problems. And with one in three children in Wales living below the poverty line, it is clear that politicians must tackle inequalities if they are really improve the health of our children and the health of generations to come.

We know that healthy children are much more likely to grow into healthy adults so it’s crucial that any policies aimed at reducing health inequalities are centred on prevention and early intervention.

Tackling childhood obesity and improving mental health

It is unacceptable that just over a quarter of children in Wales are overweight or obese. This means Wales has a higher rate of obesity than Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Childhood obesity is the biggest public health threat to our country and with devolved powers, Welsh politicians have a real opportunity to make policy changes quickly that will make a big difference.

One such change is a tax on food and drink high in sugar, salt and fat. The RCPCH proposed this along with a number of other preventative measures in its newly launched ‘Child Health Matters: A vision for 2016’ report. It’s a proposal that the British Medical Association also backs and is supported by around half of the Welsh public.

Other policies that must be considered include the introduction of a 20mph speed limit in built up areas. Not only will this encourage children to walk, scoot, cycle and play but evidence suggests it will also reduce road traffic deaths – a major cause of preventable death in Wales. This is a policy which 77% of the Welsh public support and one that is also backed by charities Sustrans Cymru and Living Streets.

When it comes to mental health, prevention is vitally important. We know that three children in every school class suffer with a mental health problem, and if not dealt with appropriately, poor mental health can lead to drug and alcohol misuse and in extreme cases, suicide, which is another leading cause of death in young people.

‘Stronger direction is needed’

Despite early successes on children and young people’s rights in Wales, the past few years have seen a reduced voice for children. Currently, children and young people are invisible in many of the debates about the services that affect their health and wellbeing.

We want to see political parties of all colours commit to appointing a Welsh Minister for Children to lead on policies affecting children and young people – this is something that 7 in 10 Welsh adults (71%) support and is something also acknowledged by Barnardo’s . The reinstatement of a children’s committee in Welsh Government Cabinet, supported by 68% of Welsh adults, would also send a strong signal that child health is being taken seriously by politicians.

With high profile organisations championing change along with high levels of public support, I urge the next Welsh government to make child health a priority.  Only with political will can we make child health outcomes in Wales something to be proud of and comparable to the best in the world.

Dr Mair Parry is a leading Children's doctor in Wales and Officer for Wales for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH). The RCPCH’s manifesto ‘Child Health Matters: A vision for 2016’ makes a series of child health recommendations to the next Welsh Government. To read them in full, visit www.rcpch.ac.uk

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