Public health and early intervention

In September 2013 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that due to funding cuts, they needed to reduce their workload and stop collecting certain statistics. They suggested that a good first step would be to stop collecting data on child mortality.

A range of charities and organisations, led by the well-respected Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, immediately ran a campaign to save the stats. In late February 2014 they learnt they had been successful and that the stats would continue to be collected.

Good news. However, the fact that it was even considered an option to stop collecting such statistics points to a wider issue within the coalition government and, to an extent, within the Labour party: children’s issues are almost always considered to be secondary to those of older people.

There’s no doubting that older people face huge challenges and that politicians should seek to support them whenever they can. But in cynical pursuit of their base, this Conservative-led government have focussed relentlessly on older people’s issues and practically ignored children and the young. Even The Times recently described David Cameron’s triple-lock on state pensions as ‘absurdly generous’.

The UK has the worst levels of childhood mortality in Western Europe, with almost 2,000 excess deaths per year. Levels of suicide and self-harm among children and young people haven’t seen a reduction for 34 years. New mums between 30 and 34 are, perversely, now having healthier babies than those between 18-30 because the socio-economic disadvantages facing the young are now outweighing the advantage their typicaly better physical health previously provided.

So what should be done? First of all, The Healthy Start Scheme, introduced under the last Labour government, should be made universal. This scheme provides pregnant women on low incomes with free vitamins, fruit and vegetables. The scheme is good in principle, but is too difficult to access with only certain chemists accepting the vouchers. Families should be able to access these vitamins wherever they do their weekly shop: whether that’s the local pharmacy or their high street Asda.

Mental health services for children and young people should be made more freely available and better integrated into schools. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services - paid for by local authorities - have been drastically reduced in recent years. The government will undoubtedly blame local authorities for this, but given the most deprived councils have seen cuts to their budgets of more than 25% it would be unfair to lay the blame solely at the doors of town halls. The fact that we haven’t seen a reduction in the numbers of suicide among young people since 1980 is a disgrace. Given that three quarters of lifetime mental health illnesses have manifested themselves by the age of 21, better early support is essential.

In addition, more needs to be done to ensure obesity doesn’t become a new normal among the young. In February 2013, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC) came together to produce an unprecedented report into the nation’s obesity crisis and in March 2014, Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, noted that today’s children are unlikely to live as long as her parent’s generation. The AoMRC recommendations may or may not fix the problem, but we owe it to ourselves to try.

We know that early intervention works. Let’s save tomorrow’s adults, by ensuring today’s children have the best start in life.

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