New Zealand's poor housing is making our children sick stuff nation

"It's like we're telling ourselves this big lie. It makes me ashamed to be a New Zealander."
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"It's like we're telling ourselves this big lie. It makes me ashamed to be a New Zealander."

Dr Michael Chen-Xu is a doctor who works in emergency departments and treats sick children. He believes that if New Zealand could fix mouldy homes, the lives of children would be saved.

OPINION: When a child's heart stops beating, often this is not because of a heart problem, often this is due to a breathing problem. It is children who are most vulnerable to respiratory illness, and often housing is at fault.

Big studies tell us that when houses are damp and overcrowded, these are nourishing environments for viral pathogens and bacteria to grow. The body becomes susceptible to these and kids pick them up.

I recall one evening after a cold snap more vividly than others. It was frightfully cold, a strong southerly wind was blowing, and at ten o'clock at night, the emergency department was essentially a pediatric ward, filled with coughing and spluttering kids.

I would talk to them to ask what their home situation was like; the vast majority came from poor housing. One child in particular needed oxygen and was going blue without it. The poor kid had an awful cough with a terrible wheezing sound.

This article was supplied as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZ.
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'The government doesn't care about kids'

It really broke my heart because I knew that we would support him through this illness, but then send him back to the same conditions that brought him into hospital in the first place.

As doctors, there are a number of things we can do to help: check for heating, check for different types of heating, check to see whether the home is damp or not. And of course we tell families that it would be beneficial to get better insulation or even a dehumidifier.

It can feel futile because when you're struggling to put food on the table or hold on to your job, that second step, in the form of heating, just doesn't feature. What this means is that the baby's energy, resources and physiology are all dedicated to staying alive, as opposed to growing and flourishing.

It really shouldn't be the case in New Zealand. We've always liked to think of ourselves as this equal egalitarian society, where everyone gets a fair go.

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For fairness' sake, every child should be able to be healthy, should be able to go to school, make friends, develop, grow and flourish. When kids come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and are forever in hospital rather than at school, they won't learn or develop as well. It perpetuates this great myth that they are less productive members of society.

There is also a real moral imperative that this is a matter of fairness: why should any child not have access to these things? They don't choose the circumstances which they are born into.

If we don't invest in our kids—invest in good maternal care—fairly good evidence exists to suggest there are long-term economic ramifications for us as a society as well.

When as a society we have kids in hospital, and families struggle with respiratory illness, rheumatic heart disease, and skin infections that are poverty related, how can we consider ourselves fair? It's like we're telling ourselves this big lie. It makes me ashamed to be a New Zealander.

As told to UNICEF NZ.  UNICEF stands up for every child so they can have a childhood.

Find out more at unicef.org.nz

 - Stuff

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