Vulnerable children from the most deprived communities have become "silent victims" of the recession, often having to go without healthy food, healthcare and clothing, a new report has found.
The yearly Children's Social Health Monitor, released today, examines the effects of the economic downturn on children.
Researchers say children with preventable illnesses are being left untreated and, at times, suffering permanent health damage because doctors' fees are too high for many families. Low income and beneficiary families feeling the pinch were being forced to cut back on essentials such as heating, fruit and vegetables, and visits to the doctor.
There are stark differences in the levels of ill-health, abuse and neglect for different groups of children, according to the monitor, which shows children reliant on beneficiaries are missing out on the basics.
About one in every five children is reliant on a benefit as the main source of the family's income. Those children were more likely to be wearing worn-out shoes or clothing, sharing a bed or having to eat unhealthy food.
About 5000 more children were admitted to hospital last year with acute or respiratory illness than in 2007.
University of Auckland Paediatrics professor Innes Asher, who is also on the Child Poverty Action Group board, said there were big problems facing children's health in New Zealand.
"We have had very serious health outcomes from preventable diseases from delays in going to the doctor. Pneumonia if left untreated can cause permanent damage to the lungs, for instance."
Children had become the silent victims of the recession, she said. Otago University Child and Youth Epidemiology Service director Elizabeth Craig said the total number of sick children admitted to hospital was a concern.
"We know these conditions are responsive to economic conditions as families end up on benefits and have to stop heating their homes. It works out badly for kids."
Dr Craig said the cost of doctors' visits, particularly after-hours, needed to be made affordable and steps needed to be taken to make sure everyone lived in a healthy home.
This is the third year of the monitor's findings, developed by national and regional organisations.
Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Government had introduced health initiatives.
"In difficult financial times we have prioritised increases in GP subsidies. GP subsidies have been increased by around $100 million in the last three years.
"We have also seen the immunisation rates for two-year-olds increase from 73 per cent to 90 per cent in just three years."
About 94 per cent of children under six had access to free GP visits, and school-aged children from low income families were offered capped and "comparatively cheaper GP fees". "In some of the poorer parts of the country this can be between free and $10."
The Government was also investing in a $12 million rheumatic fever programme, he said.
Children's Social Monitor 2011:
The number of children reliant on a beneficiary increased from 201,083 from April 2008 to 234,572 in April this year – 20.4 per cent of all children.
The number of children reliant on DPB recipients is 15.8 per cent of all children. 59 per cent of children who relied on a benefit scored four or more on a composite deprivation index, which means they are wearing worn-out shoes or clothing, sharing a bed, cutting back on fruit and vegetables and postponing doctor's visits.
Hospital admissions for medical conditions, namely infectious and respiratory diseases, increased last year.
Admissions are up by nearly 5000 children in 2010 compared with 2007. On average, between 2000 and 2008, seven children per year died from assault, neglect or maltreatment. Hospital admissions of this nature are 5.6 times higher for children from deprived areas.
Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy was 7.4 times higher for babies in most-deprived areas when compared to least-deprived.
- The Dominion Post