A new study has revealed a huge disparity in levels of obesity, tooth decay, injury and early childhood development for under-fives across the country.
The National Children’s Bureau report shows under-fives in poor areas of England are far more likely to suffer bad health.
Its report - Poor Beginnings, health inequalities among young children across England - analysed data from Public Health England and other sources.
The findings show that a five-year old in Leicester is five times more likely to have tooth decay than one in West Sussex.
“As these [health] variations are closely linked to poverty…we have to ask whether England is becoming a nation of two halves?
The report reveals startling variations, with a child in reception class in Barking and Dagenham in east London, over two and a half times more likely to be obese than a child of the same age in Richmond upon Thames, only 18 miles away.
It also found that if young children in the North West had the same health and development as those in the South East then over 15,000 cases of child ill-health could be prevented.
Comparing the 30 most deprived local authorities with the 30 best-off, the report finds that children under five in poor areas are significantly more prone to obesity, tooth decay, accidental injuries and lower educational development.
However, it said the link between growing up in a deprived area and poor health is not inevitable as several regions have better than average child health despite being less prosperous.
Some areas of high levels of deprivation buck the trend and achieve better than expected results. Children in three local authority areas – such as Hartlepool, South Tyneside and Islington – have lower rates of tooth decay despite high levels of deprivation.
“Health services must continue to be commissioned to recognise risk and intervene in the life cycle, in pregnancy and the very early years”
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “It is shocking that two children growing up in neighbouring areas can expect such a wildly different quality of health.
“As these variations are closely linked to poverty, with those in areas with the highest levels of deprivation more likely to suffer from a range of health issues, we have to ask whether England is becoming a nation of two halves?”
She noted the link between poverty and poor health was not inevitable and said work was urgently needed to understand how local health services can lessen the impact of living in a deprived area.
Cheryll Adams, chief executive of the Institute of Health Visiting, said: “Health services must continue to be commissioned to recognise risk and intervene in the life cycle, in pregnancy and the very early years, and further investigate the variations uncovered in the report and how they relate to local health initiatives.”
The report comes ahead of the transfer of public health commissioning for under-fives from NHS England to local authorities from October.
It highlighted that while there had been an increase in health visitors in recent years due to a government target, there had also been “significant welfare reform” and cuts to local authority funding for early intervention and public health services.
A £200 million reduction to local authority spending will also be implemented in 2016, which is expected to come from the public health grants local councils receive.