Shock look at NZ's child poverty

Last updated 05:00 21/11/2011

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More than 100 New Zealand children who died last year would probably have survived had they lived in Japan, Sweden or the Czech Republic, a new documentary shows.

In Inside Child Poverty: A Special Report, set to air this week, Wellington documentary maker Bryan Bruce shows a Swedish doctor footage of sick, scab-ridden schoolchildren suffering from preventable diseases in Porirua and asks if he saw similar situations in his country.

The doctor shakes his head: "In the 70s, maybe."

Last year, more than 25,000 children were admitted to hospital for respiratory infections. Doctors routinely treat cases of rheumatic fever and scabies – diseases now rare in Europe.

The reason behind these preventable diseases were appalling rates of child poverty that New Zealand could not afford to ignore, Mr Bruce said.

In the two years he spent researching the topic, he visited schools, doctors and low-income families in eastern Porirua. Cross-referencing world development indicators with mortality data, he found that 150 children who died in New Zealand last year would probably have survived had they lived in Japan, Sweden or the Czech Republic. New Zealand is second to last in child health and safety rankings of 30 OECD countries, with only Turkey worse.

As part of the study, Mr Bruce visited Sweden – a country once considered similar to New Zealand – and found that children there received free healthcare, were provided a free meal a day at school and were free from diseases associated with poverty.

Back in Porirua, he visited houses with walls blackened by mould, where families of five slept in the same room just to keep warm. Diseases like rheumatic fever, skin infections and respiratory illnesses spread quickly in the damp and overcrowded conditions.

In the documentary, Wellington Hospital paediatric surgeon Brendon Bowkett laments the huge sums of money spent on operating to save children with preventable diseases. "That would have paid for hundreds of child assessments."

Mr Bruce said New Zealand was now at a "moral crossroads" and he was calling for politicians to work out a long-term policy for the health of children. This could include redistributing parts of benefits to pay for free medical care and school lunches, introducing health regulations for rental housing, and appointing a children's minister.

"A nation with poor children is a poor excuse for a nation ... it's not a political question, it's an ethical question. No child should go hungry in this country, no child should have a preventable disease."

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Health Minister Tony Ryall could not be contacted yesterday, and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett did not respond to a request to comment.

Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett said that, while most of the information was already known, anything that put child poverty in the spotlight was worthwhile.

"We want to build these kids into contributing citizens for tomorrow, and certainly whatever is being done at the moment isn't working and we have to work really hard to put services in place that actually meet their basic life needs.

"This is not the fault of any one government, it's actually a social responsibility."

Inside Child Poverty: A Special Report will air on TV3 at 7.30pm tomorrow.

- The Dominion Post

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