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Overall Health of U.S. Children a Mixed Bag

Government study finds gains and losses

FRIDAY, July 10 (HealthDay News) -- More of America's children get recommended vaccinations and have health insurance than in years past, but a new U.S. government report paints a mixed picture of the overall health of the nation's youngsters.

And because of the recession, that picture could soon become bleak, experts say.

The report examines child well-being in the areas of family and social environment, economic circumstances, health care, physical environment and safety, behavior, education, health and special health needs.

On the economic side, the findings are not encouraging, said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. "Although the indicators predate the current economic downturn, they do show children losing ground," he said during a Wednesday teleconference.

In 2007, 18 percent of children lived in poverty compared with 17 percent in 2006, he noted. Also the number of children with at least one working parent dropped in 2007, and some experts expect the recession will erode gains to children's well-being.

"The idea of this report is to provide a yearly overview on the status of America's children and youth," Alexander said.

In 2007, of the 73.9 million children in the United States, 89 percent had health insurance, up from 88 percent in 2006. But in 2007, that still left 8.1 million -- or 11 percent -- of all children uninsured.

About 9 percent of children suffered from asthma in 2007, and about 5 percent had one or more asthma attacks in the previous year. Asthma affected 15 percent of black children and Puerto Rican children, the report noted.

In 2007, more than three quarters of children (77 percent) aged 2 to 17 saw a dentist the previous year. Yet in 2003 to 2004, 25 percent of these children had untreated cavities, up from 21 percent in 1999 to 2002.

The percent of preterm births and low birth weight infants dipped slightly, but could signal the start of a downturn, Alexander said. In 2007, 12.7 percent of infants were born preterm, down from 12.8 in 2006. The percent of low birth weight infants in 2007 was 8.2 percent, compared with 8.3 percent in 2006.

"At this point, we don't know if the decreases are the beginning of a trend or just a minor fluctuation," Alexander said.

Infant mortality dropped to 6.7 percent per 1,000 births from 6.9 percent in 2005.

In terms of mental health, 8 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 had a major depressive episode in 2007, down from 9 percent in 2005. Similarly, the number of teens treated for depression remained fairly stable -- 39 percent in 2007, 40 percent in 2004.

About 14 percent of all U.S. children had special health-care problems in 2005 and 2006. These required prescription medication, more services than most children, special therapies, or limited their ability to do things most other children can do.

The most common of these were allergies, asthma, attention-deficit disorder, depression, anxiety or other emotional problems, and migraine or frequent headaches.

More than half of these children had two or more of these conditions, and almost 11 percent had four or more conditions, said Dr. Peter C. van Dyck, associate administrator for maternal and child health at the Health Resources and Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during the teleconference.

Other highlights of the report include:

  • Seventy-seven percent of infants received the recommended combined six-vaccine series in 2007, up from 66 percent in 2002.
  • Sixty-seven percent of children lived with two married parents in 2008, a drop from 77 percent in 1980.
  • In 2007, 40 percent of all births were to unmarried women, the highest percentage ever reported and a jump from 34 percent in 2002.
  • In 2007, births to teenagers aged 15 to 17 rose to 22.2 per 1,000, up from 22.0 per 1,000 in 2006, the second consecutive year of increase after dropping by almost half from 1991 to 2005.
  • Heavy drinking among teens dropped from a peak of 13 percent in 1996 to 8 percent in 2008 for 8th graders, and among 10th graders boozing declined from 24 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2008. Drinking by 12th graders fell off from 32 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2008.
  • Youth violence peaked at 26 percent in 1993, declining to 17 percent in 2007.
  • Accidental injury is the leading cause of death in children aged 1 to 14, followed by birth defects for children aged 1 to 4 and cancer for those aged 5 to 14.

Daniel Armstrong, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida, thinks the current recession could negatively affect children's health.

"You have to look at the history of what has happened during other recessions," Armstrong said. "The history tells us that there will be areas that change."

Added economic stress, for example, may increase mental health problems among children, he said. It could also affect health insurance coverage, he added.

"This year, Congress passed SCHIP [State Children's Health Insurance Program], which should provide many more children with health insurance. One of the challenges is that SCHIP requires a state contribution. If states are under severe budget crises, there is no way to be sure that passage of SCHIP bill is going to have any increase in the insured," he said.

More information

To see the full report, visit the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics.

SOURCES: Daniel Armstrong, Ph.D., professor, pediatrics and psychology, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; July 8, 2009, teleconference with: Duane Alexander, M.D., director, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. National Institutes of Health; Peter C. van Dyck, M.D., M.P.H., associate administrator, maternal and child health, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2009

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