There has been mixed progress in tackling health inequalities across the nation, fresh figures from the Department of Health on infant mortality, life expectancy and mortality indicate.

Back in 2004, the government set a benchmark for what it hopes to achieve in terms of health inequality improvements by 2010, to help better the overall health of the population and ease some of the pressure on already-stretched services. But the latest figures suggest that, while the situation has clearly improved in some areas, targets are in dangers of being missed in others.

One area where great strides have been made is in cancer mortality, with the number of deaths falling for both England as a whole and the Spearhead group (from health deprived areas). The gap in cancer mortality rates between the two groups has reduced from 20.7 deaths per 100,000 population in 1995-7 to 18.1 deaths per 100,000 population in 2003-5, but there has been a slight rise to 18.4 deaths per 100,000 population for 2004-6. Still, overall the gap has narrowed 11.3% since the baseline, well overshooting the target of 6% by 2009-11.

Similarly, inequality in circulatory disease mortality is also on track to meet its goal. During 2004-6, the inequality gap is down 32.2% to 24.9 deaths per 100,000, well on the way to achieving the goal of 22 deaths per 100,000 population or less.

On the downside, although the infant mortality gap has now declined for the second consecutive period, the improvement is not enough, and the target 10% reduction in health inequality (as measured by infant mortality and life expectancy at birth) is in danger of being missed.

Life expectancy gap growing
Furthermore, differences in life expectancy between the average for England and the worst five local authorities (in terms of life expectancy, inequality and health deprivation) are actually widening. For males, the relative gap was 2% wider than baseline, while for females it was 11% wider.

Tackling health inequality is a key target for the government, which is putting in place various measures to close the gaps around the country, starting with widening access to primary care services with new GP surgeries and health centres in the most deprived areas of the country and longer opening hours.