Health visiting and school nursing services “must be preserved” if the UK is to make strides in improving children’s health, according to a ground-breaking state of the nation report.
Swingeing cuts to public health budgets in England are disproportionately affecting children’s services and putting vital early intervention at risk, warned the report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
“Poor health in infancy, childhood, and young adult life will ultimately mean poor adult health”
Overall, it painted a worrying picture of child health across the UK, bringing together for the first time data on a range of measures such as obesity, mortality and specific conditions like asthma, diabetes and epilepsy.
While there had been improvements in child health in recent decades, it noted that the UK still lagged behind much of Europe in key areas, including infant mortality, smoking during pregnancy and breastfeeding rates.
Crucially, the report highlighted an “alarming” gap between rich and poor, with children from the most deprived backgrounds experiencing much worse health than the most affluent.
Professor Neena Modi, president of the RCPCH, said the UK “must do better for the sake of each individual and the nation as a whole”.
“Children living in the most deprived areas are much more likely to be in poor health, be overweight or obese, suffer from asthma, have poorly managed diabetes, experience mental health problems, and die early,” she said.
“Poor health in infancy, childhood, and young adult life will ultimately mean poor adult health, and this in turn will mean a blighted life and poor economic productivity,” she added.
“Health visitors and school nurses play a vital role in early identification and intervention”
The report called for more action to tackle child poverty and stated that robust monitoring was vital, identifying public health nursing roles as especially important.
It said: “In particular, health visitors and school nurses play a vital role in early identification and intervention, preventing more serious problems later in life. These services must be preserved.”
Cheryll Adams, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, described the report as “very worrying and upsetting”.
“As a nation, we can’t afford to not invest in our children as they are our future, yet recently their needs seem to have become invisible against the many competing demands being made on government and the NHS,” she said.
“As an absolute priority and first step, the cuts to public health budgets must be stopped,” said Ms Adams.
The report also flagged the need for more specialist nurses in areas like epilepsy care. The proportion of paediatric services with input from an epilepsy specialist nurse has increased from 46% to 59%, said the report – published today and titled The State of Child Health.
“Some argue that this is welcome progress, but it remains the case that over one third of paediatric services across the country do not contain a vital component of an adequate service,” it added.
“As an absolute priority and first step, the cuts to public health budgets must be stopped”
Compiled by experts with input from children and young people, the report made a series of recommendations, including for the four UK governments to adopt a “child health in all policies approach”.
“That means that whatever policies are made, from whatever government department, they must consider the impact on child health,” said Professor Russell Viner, the RCPCH’s officer for health promotion.
Other recommendations include extending the ban on smoking in public places to hospitals, schools and playgrounds, and expanding the universal child measurement programmes that are often delivered by nurses.
The report also called for national public health campaigns to promote good nutrition and exercise, before, during and after pregnancy.
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“Interventions before and during pregnancy can produce long-term health gains for both mother and child,” said Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives.
She stressed that making improvements in key areas like breastfeeding rates, reducing drinking and smoking in pregnancy, and tackling obesity all required “investment in resources and in staff”.
“But it is investment that will pay dividends in the long run, saving the NHS money and most importantly contributing to a healthier population, with fewer illnesses,” she added.