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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Living in poverty having devastating effect on children's health, doctors warn

Written by Jane Kirby

Poverty is having a devastating impact on children's health, with parents diluting milk, skimping on food and youngsters living in damp, cold housing, paediatricians say.

A new report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), based on a survey with 250 paediatricians across the UK, found almost half think things are getting worse.

Just three doctors said the situation was improving for the children in their care.

Data shows that four million children - or three in 10 - across the UK live in poverty after housing costs are taken into account. This is predicted to rise to five million by the end of the decade.

In the new report, more than three in five doctors said food insecurity - including poor nutrition and inability to buy enough food - contributes "very much" to the ill health of children in their care. A further quarter said it contributes "somewhat".

Doctors told how parents deprive themselves of food and rely on food banks, while others cannot afford clothes, toothbrushes or toothpaste.

One paediatrician said: "I see patients with poor nutritional state from poverty or low income, with growth below [what is] expected", while another said: "Parents dilute down milk as they can't afford formula milk."

Another said: "We see parents in A&E who are limiting their eating to care for their children. Children are worried, scared and upset."

More than two-thirds of doctors said homelessness or poor housing contribute "very much" or "somewhat" to the ill health of children they work with.

Just under a third said the inability to keep warm at home contributed "very much" to child ill-health and a third that it contributes somewhat".

Others described mouldy, damp houses and families living in one room.

One doctor said: "Cold, damp, overcrowded housing exacerbate respiratory illness and other conditions", while another said: "[I see] children being unwell with back-to-back respiratory illnesses, living in overcrowded shared accommodation."

Another said: "It is not unusual to hear about extended families of five to seven people, maybe more, living in one-bedroom apartments, or single mothers with two or three children living in bedsits with a shared kitchen and bathroom.

Another said: "[I] recently saw a child who was living in a mouse infested house - the mum and baby plus four other kids were living upstairs as the mice had totally destroyed their living room."

Paediatricians also pointed to the impact on a child's mental health, with "worry, stress and anxiety" meaning children have a "little part of their childhood taken away, a part of their day they will spend worrying instead of playing or learning".

One doctor said rates of self-harm in young people had gone up due to the "combination of the recession and continuing austerity measures".

Medics also described trouble discharging medically-fit children from hospital due to not wanting to send them to inadequate housing.

Some 40% had difficulty discharging a child in the last six months because of concerns about housing or food insecurity.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of CPAG, said: "Day in, day out, doctors see the damage rising poverty does to children's health.

"Their disquiet comes through in the survey findings and should sound alarms for the next government.

"Low family incomes, inadequate housing and cuts to support services are jeopardising the health of our most vulnerable children.

"We can and must do better to protect the well-being of future generations. Re-instating the UK's poverty-reduction targets would be an obvious place to start."

Professor Russell Viner, officer for health promotion at the RCPCH, said: "Poverty has a devastating effect on child health and this report makes disturbing reading."

Fiona Smith, from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said: "Across the country, nursing staff are seeing families reliant on foodbanks to feed their children, with many having to choose between heating and putting dinner on the table. School nurses are coming across children who haven't eaten in 24 hours.

"Housing is often incredibly poor with many children living in damp conditions whilst others are actually homeless and are being put up in B&Bs. Both mentally and physically, these living conditions can have a hugely detrimental impact on children's health, now and in the future.

"Cuts to public health have exacerbated an already shameful situation."

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