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Child mortality

Lars Bevanger, Manchester, UKMay 23, 2014

Experts blame the UK’s record high child death rate on a growing poverty gap, as new statistics show the country falling behind most other western European nations' child survival numbers.

Manchester Food Bank
Image: Lars Bevanger

The UK's death rate for under-fives is 4.9 out of every 1,000 children born, new figures show. Child mortality statistics developed by The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, and published earlier this month in The Lancet, puts the UK second only to Malta in the number of child deaths in western Europe. The figures are 50 percent higher than the lowest scoring country, Iceland.

"We were surprised by these findings because the UK has made so many significant advances in public health over the years," said Christopher Murray, director of the IHME and the study's senior author.

"The higher than expected child death rates in the UK are a reminder to all of us that, even as we are seeing child mortality decline worldwide, countries need to examine what they are doing to make sure more children grow into adulthood."

Poverty "to blame"

The UK's National Health Service (NHS) is amongst the best funded and best run public health services in the world. Yet that is not enough, experts warn.

Ingrid Wolfe
It is society as a whole, and not simply health services, that is responsible, says WolfeImage: privat

"It's quite true that the NHS is a very successful health system in many ways, but the things that affect children's lives and their chances of death lie in the whole of society - not just in health services," Ingrid Wolfe, of London's Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, told DW.

"One of the most striking things that is happening in the UK is that child poverty is going up, and, perhaps more importantly, inequalities are widening. So the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and there's a lot of evidence to show that's a very unhealthy state of being for children."

Growing income gap

Since coming to power in 2010, the Conservative-led British government has made deep cuts to public spending and has capped welfare payments. Today, the British economy is growing faster than those in most other EU countries, and the government argues the cuts are working.

Yet a March 2014 report from the Organization of Economic and Social Development (OECD) warned that poverty in the UK would worsen if the government kept cutting social spending for vulnerable people.

"The economic recovery alone will not be enough to heal the social divisions and help the hardest-hit bounce back," said Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary General.

"Governments need to put in place more effective social policies to help their citizens deal with future crises."

Empty hands

The number of British people now relying on free food parcels from food banks has risen three fold in just the past year, to nearly one million people.

"I could take you into a council estate where people have no jobs, no benefits and are living on handouts all the time," Nigel Tedford, project manager of a Manchester food bank, told DW.

"And that exists within the UK and it's been an increasing problem for years. All government budgets are being cut, and that means benefits are being cut."

Manchester Food Bank Nigel Tedford
Social welfare benefits are being cut at an alarming rate, said TedfordImage: Lars Bevanger

People using food banks are provided a healthy, balanced diet - everything is carefully put together to provide three days of good nutrition. But elsewhere in British society unhealthy food is cheaper and more easily accessible than healthy options. This leaves poorer families more exposed to diet-related health problems.

"At the moment, unhealthy food is cheaper and more easily available than healthy food. The same is true with alcohol and tobacco. These things are readily available and not as expensive, in my view, as they should be," said Wolfe.

"The evidence for a more equal society being beneficial for children and families is overwhelming. And I think as citizens we can help persuade our politicians that what we want is a more equal society in order to look after our children and young people better, so that we are no longer in this position of being bottom of the league," she added.

Aware of the challenge

The British government says it recognizes the need to reduce child mortality rates. In a written statement, Health Minister Dan Poulter pointed out that deaths in infants, children and young people were falling, but that more needed to be done.

"That is why we are investing more in services and training, particularly ensuring that general practitioners have stronger skills to care for children and young people with long term conditions in the community," Poulter wrote.

Campaigners welcome this political will to ensure health professionals are properly trained to pick up on the danger signs of child illnesses, which can help reduce child mortality rates.

But they say the authorities must now begin to take in the wider picture and focus their efforts on reducing the gap between rich and poor - if they want to save more young lives.