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Children with a disability or one or more long-term conditions are an ‘invisible group’ when policy is developed for early years, according to a damning new report which has found that child health in the UK is deteriorating.
The report from the Academy of Medical Sciences found that progress on child health in the UK has stalled. Infant survival rates are worse than in 60% of similar countries and the number of children living in extreme poverty tripled between 2019 and 2022.
There is also a higher demand for children’s mental health services and a fifth of five-year-old children are overweight or obese with one-in-four affected by tooth decay. Vaccination rates have also plunged below World Health Organization safety thresholds, threatening outbreaks.
The report calls on the government to prioritise improving health and wellbeing and reducing inequalities in the first five years of life and establish a unifying vision across Government for the early years to coordinate policies and resources.
To do this, the Government must address the decline in child and family health workforce and fragmentation across sectors to deliver effective services and improve collection and access to data on the wider determinants of child health to enable research and policy implementation. It must also ensure that the diverse voices of children, parents and carers are represented in developing early years policies and interventions. The report adds that the cost of inaction is estimated to be at least £16 billion a year.
The authors say that outcomes for children with chronic genetic conditions can also be positively influenced by early intervention in childhood and that the needs of different groups must be considered when developing policies in the early years. All children, no matter their background, should be able to access high-quality, supportive services in order to experience an environment that is conducive to the development of good health.
Report co-chair, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard FMedSci, said: “There are huge challenges for the NHS today driven by the growing pressures on health and social care from an ageing population. Even more disconcerting is the evidence cited in our Academy of Medical Sciences report of an appalling decline in the health of our children, which makes for an even more bleak outlook for their future.
“There is clear evidence in the report that tackling childhood health conditions, addressing inequalities and providing early years social support can change the future of health and prosperity. It is time for big thinking and clear strategy by Government to protect the health and life chances of our children today and transform the future of our nation.”
The report outlines a gathering crisis across the early-years – from pre-conception through pregnancy to the first five years of life. It highlights that this entire period, often overlooked in policy, the health service and research, is crucial for laying the foundations for lifelong mental and physical health as healthy children are more likely to grow into healthy, productive adults.
Child health experts from across the UK produced the report, which includes perspectives from parents and carers with lived experience. Chaired by Professor Helen Minnis FMedSci and Professor Sir Andrew Pollard FMedSci, the group examined the positive impact of intervening in the early years on the health and future of the nation.
While stressing that no single age period determines health outcomes, the report presents robust data showing that frontloading investment in the earliest years, including preconception and during pregnancy, delivers lifelong benefits by establishing healthy foundations to reduce the risk of complex health issues. Early childhood is a cost-effective time to intervene compared to opportunities later in life.
Report co-chair, Professor Helen Minnis FMedSci, added: “Every child has the right to a safe and healthy childhood. It is shameful that the UK is failing to provide this. Child deaths are rising, infant survival lags behind comparable countries and preventable physical and mental health issues plague our youngest citizens. The science is clear – we are betraying our children. Unless the health of babies and young children is urgently prioritised, we condemn many to a life of poorer health and lost potential. The time to act is now.”