Parents of every young child admitted to hospital should be surveyed to see whether their homes could have caused their child's illness, a study recommends.
In the first study of its kind at a New Zealand hospital, a team of medical students found a "shocking" number of toddlers admitted overnight to Wellington Hospital were living in cold, damp houses, and might not have been sick if not for their surroundings.
"It's the scale of this effect that has been a surprise," said lead researcher Michael Baker, a professor at the department of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington.
"The home environment in New Zealand is just incredibly poor for a developed country."
In the study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, medical students interviewed the parents of more than 106 children, mostly under the age of four, who were admitted to hospital overnight during a two-week period in July.
A third were suffering from respiratory conditions, with Maori and Pacific children and those living in poor neighbourhoods far more at risk.
Half of all parents interviewed said their homes were colder than they would prefer, with up to a third of children living in damp, mouldy, overcrowded houses.
About 16 per cent of parents said they needed to sleep in the same room as other family members just to stay warm, with 12 per cent saying they could not afford their power bills.
And 38 per cent of children were regularly exposed to second-hand smoke.
Capital & Coast District Health Board paediatrician Andrew Marshall said the number of children he saw who were victims of poverty was heartbreaking.
The study highlighted what doctors already knew, but would hopefully filter up to politicians.
"It is very frustrating. We live in a dreamworld where we believe that we are a wealthy country, but we see far too much of the diseases of poverty. The disparity between rich and poor is huge.
"There's a perception that it's people's fault that they're in poverty, but you certainly can't blame children. We know this stuff, but actually to have it proven and shown to other people is very important."
The study had changed the way staff worked in children's health at Wellington Hospital, and it was now routine to ask questions about patients' home environments and intervene where they could.
Professor Baker said all children admitted overnight should be screened and followed up, and a nationwide audit done every year. "We know thousands of children are going to hospital every year, many for preventable reasons, and we think there should be a stocktake to get a sense of the [risks] in the community.
"It should be part of our health system to find out what caused it, so it can be fixed."
Another of his studies, published in international medical journal The Lancet last year, showed hospital admissions for infectious diseases rose 51 per cent between 1989 and 2008. Most were preventable respiratory, skin and gastrointestinal infections.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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