Poverty is seriously affecting the health of many British children, who are paying a heavy price as a result of housing, food and financial insecurity, paediatricians have warned in a report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). It paints a bleak picture of the wellbeing of children in low-income households.
Among the problems cited by paediatricians are poor growth in children, whose parents cannot afford healthy food or to take them to medical appointments, respiratory illnesses being caused or exacerbated by cold, damp housing, and mental health problems resulting from financial stress. Two in five of surveyed doctors said they had experienced difficulty discharging a child in the past six months because of concerns about housing or food insecurity.
Only one respondent out of 266 paediatricians from 90 NHS trusts who completed the survey said poverty and low income did not contribute to the ill health of the children they work with, while more than two-thirds said it contributed “very much”. Almost half of doctors who responded said things were getting worse and only three believed they were improving.
Housing problems or homelessness were a concern for just under nine out of 10 respondents, with one London doctor commenting that “overcrowded, damp or unsuitable housing amongst our patients is the rule rather than the exception”.
Another paediatrician said that they had seen a number of babies unable to be discharged from the special care babies unit due to the parents being homeless. Four out of five doctors said an inability to keep warm at home contributed to ill health among children they treat.
More than three in five said food insecurity contributed very much to the ill health of children, with more than nine in 10 saying it had some impact. The inability to afford enough healthy food is associated both with poor growth of deprived babies and children on the one hand, and rising child obesity on the other.
One doctor who responded to the survey said the biggest impact of poverty on their patients was “insecurity, inferiority and stress. Through the biological and psychological factors these undoubtedly lead to poor health”.
More than nine in 10 paediatricians said financial stress and worry contributed to the ill health of children they work with.
Prof Russell Viner, RCPCH officer for health promotion, said its members were seeing problems that seemed to belong to a bygone era.
“Paediatricians around the country are telling us that poverty is affecting the health of children in a way we haven’t seen before,” he said. “It’s an absolute wake-up call for our political parties that they really need to deliver on promises to make Britain a more equal society."
The CPAG chief executive, Alison Garnham, said, "Low family incomes, inadequate housing and cuts to support services are jeopardising the health of our most vulnerable children.”