UK children are at a higher risk of premature death than their Western European counterparts, according to a report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).
The growing gap between rich and poor and a lack of targeted public health policies to reduce child deaths are to blame, the report said. Every year, an estimated 2,000 additional children – averaging 5 a day – die in the UK compared to the best performing country, Sweden.
Why Children Die, written by Dr Ingrid Wolfe and other leading child health experts, says that many child deaths could be prevented through a combination of social changes, political engagement and improved training for children’s healthcare professionals.
"Social and economic inequalities are matters of life and death for children," said Dr Wolfe. "Countries that spend more on social protection have lower child mortality rates. The messages are stark and crucial. Poverty kills children. Equity saves lives. Social protection is life-saving medicine for the population.”
The report by RCPCH reviewed existing UK evidence on child deaths and their causes, and found that:
• In 2012 over 3000 babies died before age one and over 2000 children and young people died between the ages of one and 19.
• More than half of deaths in childhood occur during the first year of a child’s life, and are strongly influenced by pre-term delivery and low birth weight; with risk factors including maternal age, smoking and disadvantaged circumstances.
• Suicide remains a leading cause of death in young people in the UK, and the number of deaths due to intentional injuries and self-harm have not declined in 30 years.
• After the age of one, injury is the most frequent cause of death; over three quarters of deaths due to injury in the age bracket of 10-18 year olds are related to traffic incidents.
The report highlights the importance of access to high quality healthcare for children and young people, calling for a reduction in preventable deaths through better training of healthcare professionals to enable confident, competent, early identification and treatment of illness, and better use of tools such as epilepsy passports, asthma plans and coordinated care between hospitals and schools.
Dr Hilary Cass, president of the RCPCH, added: “We know there are things that all healthcare professionals can be doing better to help reduce avoidable child deaths – whether that’s early detection of problems, safe prescribing or using effective tools such as asthma plans to manage conditions.
“But if we’re to make real inroads into reducing these tragic mortality figures, we cannot do it alone. It’s time that political parties of all colours took health inequalities seriously. At the moment, policies to reduce child mortality are too piecemeal, not targeted and fail to address the underlying causes.”
Many of the causes associated with preventable child deaths affect the poorest families. For example smoking in pregnancy is one of the most important preventable factors associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes – attributed to around 2,200 preterm births, 5,000 miscarriages and 300 perinatal deaths ever year in the UK. And mothers who smoke during pregnancy are much more likely to be from poorer families.