Northern Ireland child health 'among worst in W Europe'

By Catherine Smyth
Health producer, BBC News NI

Image source, Press Association / Chris Radburn

The health of children in Northern Ireland is among the worst in western Europe, according to a new report.

The widening gap between rich and poor is putting the health of Northern Ireland's children at risk, says the report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

The report emphasises that poverty is at the root of the problem, with almost one in four children living in poverty.

It also raises concerns about obesity, low breastfeeding rates, and mortality.

The authors recommend tighter restrictions on smoking and drinking alcohol, bolder action to tackle obesity and the urgent implementation of a child poverty strategy.

UK's highest infant mortality rate

The report looked at 25 health indicators, from specific conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy, through to risk factors including obesity, low breastfeeding rates, and mortality.

It found that in Northern Ireland in 2014/15, 23% of children lived in poverty, compared to 19% in the rest of the UK.

More than 28% of children here were overweight or obese, while less than a third of babies received any breast milk at six weeks - the lowest level in the UK.

The Infant Mortality Rate for Northern Ireland in 2014 was just under five deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to just under four deaths per 1,000 births in England, Wales and Scotland.

Smoking and drinking

The fact that child health was relatively poor in Northern Ireland could not be ignored, said Dr Karl McKeever, the RCPCH Officer for Ireland.

"Poverty is having a devastating effect on families - with smoking and drinking alcohol, poor mental health and obesity amongst children and young people all more likely to affect those from the most deprived backgrounds.

"The current political vacuum makes it difficult to enact policy change. But ultimately, the state of child health will not improve without bold action from policy makers," he added.

The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at improving child health across Northern Ireland, including:

  • The implementation of a child poverty strategy
  • A ban on smoking in cars when children are present. This is currently already in place across the other UK nations and the Republic of Ireland, and the NI Assembly voted in favour of a ban more than a year ago
  • The introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol
  • A regular survey commissioned by the Northern Ireland Executive to identify the prevalence of mental health problems among children and young people, in order to aid the planning of mental health care services
  • Appropriate mental health support offered in all primary and post primary schools in Northern Ireland