– Your post code is more important than your genetic code when it comes to children’s health (Anonymous).
– It takes the whole tribe to raise the children (African proverb).
Currently, there is a wealth of accumulated information to show that life experience and living conditions during prenatal and early life are extremely influential factors when it comes to the health and social participation of the future adult. The World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on Social Determinants of Health (CSDH) has proposed eliminating the health gap within a generation noting that inequalities during the early growth and development of children are one of the main contributing factors in creating and perpetuating inequalities in health in adulthood. According to the CSDH, the academic level of a family, education in the school-going years and academic performance all play a crucial role, in addition to exposure to a situation of family economic vulnerability.
The UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 13 shows that among developed countries, Spain rates very poorly in relation to the state’s capacity to reduce the socioeconomic inequality gap since the beginning of the Great Recession.
Children are the most vulnerable population risk group and the worst affected by the current economic crisis: in Catalonia it is estimated that one in three children live at risk of poverty, according to data from the Statistical Institute of Catalonia (IEC) for 2015. The IEC data reflects the serious impact of unemployment, household employment insecurity and the impact of the historical public investment deficit in child protection policies (or lack thereof) on the lives of children. In Spain, the number of families who turn to non-governmental organizations in search for assistance to cover their basic needs has tripled since 2007.
The short-term effects of the economic crisis on children’s health depends on the degree of exposure to material deprivation, family living conditions and access to basic minimum services as well as the family’s economic capacity to meet the children’s needs. As a result of the crisis, the already existing social gradients in health have increased. Thus, the inequality in life expectancy at birth of a child between the more and less prosperous districts of Barcelona has grown to 8 years’ difference (thereby reinforcing the claim that post code is more important in children’s health that genetic code). The evidence shows generally poorer health and worse mental health in children of at-risk families who require assistance to maintain their homes or have been evicted, according to a study carried out by the SOPHIE project and Caritas of people at-risk of eviction or who have been evicted. Evidence also shows an increase in obesity and overweight children in the general population of Catalonia but this increase cannot be attributed solely to the economic crisis as it had been detected before the onset of the recession. However, obesity is linked to important social gradients and these have increased in recent years. The perception of quality of life related to health has deteriorated for children of families with primary level studies in comparison with those with third-level education between 2006 and 2012. Studies have also detected an impact on perinatal health with decreased fertility and increased maternity age, above all for the first child, an increase in abortions among women aged 15-24, and an increase in low birthweight among young women in Spain.
The policies implemented to deal with the situation however have not resolved the problem, but instead they are helping to increase the gap. Investment in public policies targeting children in Spain is the lowest in the European Union. Local scientific societies such as the Catalan Paediatric Society (SCP), state bodies such as Spanish Society of Public Health and Administration (SESPAS) and international organisations like the International Society of Social Paediatrics (ISSOP), NGOs such as UNICEF and other organizations are calling on governments to ensure that vulnerable children are not subject to further disadvantages due to cutback policies. These bodies propose the following measures: suspend evictions of families with children / ensure basic measures against energy poverty and housing for all families; promote quality employment for young people and parents; maintain and finance school canteens throughout the year; ensure a guaranteed minimum income for families with fewer resources; and reduce regional disparities prioritizing disadvantaged districts and municipalities.
Early enrolment has shown a positive impact on cognitive development, academic level and future possibilities for social insertion of the general population and which has a particularly positive effect on the members of society who are not as well educated and have fewer resources. The proposals regarding education are summarized in ensuring children’s access to education; universal access to educational material and activities and early detection and intervention in cases of children with disadvantages.
As far as health policy is concerned, the objectives include fostering healthy nutrition and eating habits, promoting breastfeeding, extending programs and policies that have shown greater effectiveness, ensuring the rights of children with and without disabilities and complying with The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and guaranteeing universal access to effective health services for the entire population and the repeal of Royal Decree Law 16/2012 regarding exclusion from healthcare.
It is essential that all professionals responsible for the care of children and families become aware of and take an active role in reducing social inequalities in health and education if the goal is to ensure future generations of adults with equal opportunities to healthcare.
Post written by Luis Rajmil (@LuisRajmil).