New research by the RCPCH and Nuffield Trust reveals UK lagging behind peers on child health

According to a new international analysis looking at child health measures over time and across 14 comparable countries, published today by the RCPCH and the Nuffield Trust, child health outcomes for babies and young children in the UK are poor compared to comparable countries.

Launching on the final day of the RCPCH Conference the report, written by RCPCH member and Nuffield Trust Associate Dr Ronny Cheung, is based on analysis of 16 child health measures in 14 OECD countries between the early 2000s and the last year for which data are comparable. It concludes that despite some progress in recent decades, the UK remains a long way short of its stated ambition to be an international leader in fostering a healthy start for children.

To tackle this, the Nuffield Trust and RCPCH say that Governments in the UK must do more to improve maternal and antenatal health promotion, address health and socioeconomic inequalities, and protect public health budgets.

Key findings from the report

  • Child health outcomes have improved across nine of the 16 areas examined over the past decade, including reductions in the rate of premature deaths, increases in cancer survival, and a rise in the rate of immunisation.
  • Yet premature deaths for babies under a year old and tiny babies under 28 days have plateaued since 2013. In 2014, the UK had the fourth highest infant mortality rate among all comparable countries. Improvements in life expectancy have stalled since 2011.
  • Uptake of vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, and pneumococcal vaccines have all dropped in the past year, and the UK lags behind countries like Sweden, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands on the uptake of measles vaccinations. 
  • Rates of breastfeeding are among the lowest in the world, with just 34% of babies in the UK receiving any breast milk at six months compared with 62.5% in Sweden.
  • The UK has considerably more overweight or obese children than the average amongst high-income countries (26% of boys and 29% of girls aged 2-19 in 2013, compared to an average of 16% and 17% respectively).
  • The proportion of babies in the UK born with a low birth weight (under 2.5kg) is around average comparatively at 6.9% of births, but has barely changed in a decade, and the UK has the second highest prevalence of babies born with neural tube defects – something that can be prevented by taking folic acid.

The report also looks at social determinants of health. It finds that while the UK has a comparatively low rate of child income poverty using an OECD definition, the proportion of children in relative income poverty has increased since 2009/10. The UK also has the second highest proportion of children in households where no adult is working.

Commenting on the findings, report author and consultant paediatrician Dr Ronny Cheung said:

While international comparisons of health outcomes should be handled with care, this research has an unequivocal message: we must do much better for our children and young people. The recent changes to the UK’s trajectory on life expectancy, premature deaths and immunisation should set alarm bells ringing for policymakers about the effects of cuts to public health and early years services.

Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive of the Nuffield Trust said:

It is a truism to say that looking after our youngest members of society reaps rewards in the future. And yet child health is notably absent from much policy thinking at the moment and we are now falling behind our peers when it comes to several vital measures of child health. It’s time for policymakers to take child health seriously before our mediocre international standing becomes even worse.

Professor Russell Viner, President of the RCPCH said:

Given that children and young people make up a quarter of the UK population, it’s a real failure of the system that child health gets so little political attention. Investing in child health makes both moral and economic sense – for every £1 you put in, you get an average of £10 back in terms of future productivity.

We want to see the UK Government develop a comprehensive cross-departmental child health strategy, which includes a ‘health in all policies’ approach to policy making. It’s also crucial that some of the biggest threats to child health are tackled boldly; for example tighter restrictions on junk food advertising to tackle obesity, the reinstatement of child poverty reduction targets and crucially the reversal of damaging public health cuts.