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What needs to be done to address inequalities in health care for children around New Zealand

Thoughts from Cure Kids CEO, Frances Benge

Forty-seven years ago, two paediatricians shared one aspirational vision – to vastly improve the health of children in New Zealand.

Professor Bob Elliott and Dr Ron Caughey had the foresight to know that unless we started investing specifically in child health research, New Zealand would drop further down in the OECD health rankings. In 1971, after receiving a grant from Rotary, they founded the Child Health Research Foundation, which is today known as Cure Kids, the largest funder of child health research outside the Government.

We have come a long way in realising their dream – now with over 19 staff, we are working with the country’s top researchers, universities, and hospitals to make a tangible difference to the health and lives of Kiwi kids and their families.

Today, Cure Kids is currently funding over $10 million across 60 health research projects around New Zealand. In the past 47 years Cure Kids has invested over $40 million towards research that has made a huge impact in areas such as sudden infant death syndrome (SUDI), cot death, stillbirth, cystic fibrosis and sudden cardiac death.

We are proud to be making a difference to the lives of those most vulnerable, but it is still not enough.

How do we compare to other OECD countries?

While New Zealand has some of the highest living standards in the world, this does not translate into high standards of health and wellbeing for our children. Unicef recently ranked the health and wellbeing of New Zealand children 38th out of 41 developed countries. This puts us behind countries like Bulgaria, Chile and Mexico.

Each year 40,000 Kiwi kids under the age of 14 are hospitalised for poverty-related health conditions.

Our country has the third highest obesity rate in children among OECD countries. A startling 32% of children aged 2 -14 are considered obese, while respiratory illnesses are the fourth most common cause of death in New Zealand children. Despite developments in medical care, we still lose around 50 babies to Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) each year, of which the majority tragically fall disproportionately on Maori families and those living in relative deprivation.

Why is it this way?

I truly believe that sub-standard housing conditions, high living costs, inequalities in education, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor all have pivotal roles to play.

Many of us are reluctant to feel responsible for the wellbeing of children unless we have a personal connection with them.

The 2017 Children in New Zealand Communities Survey found many families said they had little contact with vulnerable children ‘at risk’ of not thriving – families, children or young people experiencing problems such as struggling to pay for basic needs, an unhappy home environment or health and learning difficulties.  Ninety percent of the survey participants felt no sense of responsibility for kids they do not have a personal connection with. This sentiment shows it is easy for many to turn a blind eye to problems which do not directly impact them.

Many of the problems around child health are preventable, namely upper respiratory tract, ear and skin infections (NZ has the highest level of cellulitis in the world). And unfortunately, with such high rates we experience a downward spiral effect – these infections leading to poor adult health and educational outcomes.

Early Intervention is key.

Cure Kids is leading the way on funding research to tackle health inequalities.

We’re supporting Community Paediatrician, Dr Ali Leversha who’s working to improve outcomes for children in Auckland’s Tamaki area, a multicultural community with significant socioeconomic disadvantage, to ensure they are healthy, socially, emotionally and developmentally when they start school. Her programme, Welcome to School, runs assessments to intervene with children not meeting developmental milestones.

Dr Leversha is also working with lower decile schools in Counties Manukau to identify better ways to treat ‘school sores’ (infected insect bites, cellulitis, eczema, abscesses and severe infections) in kids. Comparing topical antibiotic cream with alternatives such as basic wound care, she aims to find a solution to a common problem affecting Māori and Pacific children.

Meanwhile, Professor Cameron Grant is tackling recurrent respiratory illness. Each year, around 10% of children in New Zealand under the age of two are hospitalised with an acute respiratory infection. He’s found the risk of being hospitalised is 4-5 times greater for children living in deprived households. His study looks at the benefits of giving vitamin D supplements to children under two who are hospitalised with an acute lower respiratory infection.

We’re forever grateful for researchers so passionate about breaking down the barriers which cause inequalities in health care.

Like Professor Bob Elliott and Dr Ron Caughey, we will never give up on the kids that need our help, New Zealand is a small community and these children live in our beautiful backyard.

I believe it’s time to open our eyes, acknowledge these health inequalities and take more responsibility for the future generations of New Zealand.  Our Tamariki don’t have a choice about their situation, but we do. It’s time to create meaningful change.

For more information about the research projects Cure Kids is supporting in this space, please learn more here.

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