Poverty hits children's health levels

Children's health is suffering because of the recession, with a "concerning" report revealing a rise in hospital admissions and prompting the children's commissioner to call for urgent action from the Government.

Last year, 2000 more children were admitted to hospital with poverty-related illnesses than during 2007-08. These included admissions for respiratory problems, infectious diseases, and other conditions with links to poor housing and economic hardship – and could have been prevented if children were taken to see a doctor earlier.

Children's Commissioner John Angus said it was critical that the Government and health sector work together to make basic healthcare more accessible for kids.

Families on benefits were more likely to postpone doctor visits because they were unaffordable – especially steep after-hours medical costs, he said. Ailments were left to get worse, often landing children in hospital.

In the 1990s, children bore the brunt of social welfare cuts and high unemployment, he said. This situation had been easing until the economic downturn.

"I think it is concerning ... it would be unfair and unwise if we let the consequences of this recession put this generation of children in the same situation. Not only do they suffer at the time, but, in future life, their health outcomes and education outcomes are adversely affected," he said.

The 2010 New Zealand Children's Social Health Monitor report, made public yesterday, also found the number of children living in households reliant on an unemployment benefit had tripled in the past year, to 16,380.

And the number of children living with all types of beneficiaries has leapt up by 32,275, to 243,884 in April.

Maori and Pacific Islanders are feeling the recession the most, with the highest jobless rates and poorest records of child health. Families are struggling to afford doctor visits, wet weather gear and proper footwear, and more are living in "severe" hardship.

The report was written by researchers at the Child and Youth Epidemiology Service, based at Otago University. Director Elizabeth Craig, a public health physician, said current social "safety nets" needed to be reconsidered in the light of the report. "It shows, with one in five of our kids relying on benefits, we need to think how we can protect our kids well."

If the Government responded with the proper social policies, the effect of the recession on children could be reversed, she said.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The Social Health Monitor was set up last year after doctors, child welfare groups and academics became concerned about the effects of the economic downturn on child health and poverty.

The Dominion Post