Child health in the UK is in jeopardy because of inequalities driven by the growing divide between the rich and poor, and is also lagging behind that of most major European countries, concludes a new report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).
The State of Child Health report looked at 25 health indicators ranging from specific conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy, risk factors for poor health such as obesity and a low rate of breastfeeding, to child deaths, to generate a picture of children's health and wellbeing in the country today.
It found that nearly one in five children in the UK is living in poverty and inequality is "blighting their lives", with those from the most deprived backgrounds experiencing much worse health than those with the most affluent.
Despite some improvements in the health of UK children over the last decades, "there is clear disparity with Europe, and major cause for concern", it warns.
For one, the UK currently ranks 15 out of 19 Western European countries on infant (under one year of age) mortality, and has one of the highest rates for children and young people in the region.
The report also highlights a strong link between deprivation and mortality, as evidenced by the infant mortality rate, which is more than twice as high in the lowest compared with the highest socio-economic groups.
Elsewhere, across England, Scotland and Wales more than one in five children in the first year of primary school are overweight or obese, leaving them at substantially increased risk of serious life-long health problems, including type II diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
There has been "minimal improvement" in the prevalence of child overweight and obesity over the past decade, the report argues, and further highlighting the equalities gap noted that, in 2015/2016, 40 percent of children in England's most deprived areas were overweight or obese, compared to 27 percent in the most affluent areas.
The RCPCH makes a series of recommendations to buck these trends, including: calling on each UK government to develop a child health and wellbeing strategy, "coordinated, implemented and evaluated across the nation"; a ban on the advertising of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt in all broadcast media before 9pm; a reversal of public health cuts in England, "which are disproportionately affecting children's services"; and a ban on marketing electronic cigarettes to children and young people.
Also, "we are calling on each government across the UK to adopt a 'child health in all policies approach'. That means that whatever policies are made, from whatever government department, they must consider the impact on child health," said Professor Russell Viner, RCPCH officer for health promotion.
"If politicians are serious about improving our nation's health, then they have to think long term. And that means investing in children. It has to be our ambition for the health of the UK's children to be amongst the best in the world; anything less and we are failing current and future generations."
"Deprived areas in the UK see some of the highest rates of smoking among expectant mothers and adolescents, as well as emergency admission and death among children with asthma. We completely agree that any serious conversation about reducing inequalities in our country has to look at child health," added Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation.