Premature death is the British way

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The Independent Online
A CHILD born today in the United Kingdom faces a higher risk of succumbing to death and disease before attaining old age than one born almost anywhere else in Europe, doctors' leaders said yesterday.

Britain ranks 18th in a league table of deaths in early childhood, behind countries that include Slovenia and Singapore as well as France and Germany. Its death rate of seven per 1,000 births under five, most from accidents, is 75 per cent higher than the Scandinavian rate.

The disadvantages of a British parentage begin before birth and extend into old age. More than one in 14 babies weighs less than 2.5kg, a rate matched only by Albania.

Britain has the highest incidence of low birth weight in the European Union, which is linked with a greater risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure in adult life.

The British Medical Association, which published the study, Growing up in Britain,urged the Government to establish an independent commissioner to tackle Britain's poor record on child health.

James Appleyard, chairman of the working party that produced the report, said children in Britain had historically been neglected by policy-makers, and inequalities at birth cast a shadow throughout life, which could be averted only by intervening early.

"We like to think of ourselves as a child-friendly society but the facts do not support that ... Why are we below countries like Slovenia and why, over 20 years, has the gap been widening between rich and poor?

"Children in Social Class V are four times more likely to die in an accident than those in Social Class I and have nearly twice the rate of long-standing illness. We are programmed from that early age for a lifetime of problems. Old age is too late to deal with old age. We have got to start with babies to secure our future health."

Poor nutrition was a key factor and British children lost out from birth. Breast milk was best for the new-born but only two-thirds of mothers breast- feed, compared with 95 per cent in Nordic countries. Many were weaned on to sweet and salty foods, which led them to shun fruit and vegetables later. Poor nutrition early in life had been linked with worse mental performance later.

Vivienne Nathanson, head of health policy and research at the BMA, said supermarkets were doing too little to promote healthy food such as fruit and vegetables. "Families buy food they know their children will like because it is not wasted. Advertisements for food are often directed at children and we want supermarkets to think about encouraging them to eat things that are good for their health."

The report says the first five years of life are crucial to children's mental and physical development. It charts the growing health gap between the children of the rich and poor and echoes the message of last year's Acheson inquiry into health inequalities - commissioned by the Government from the former chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson - of the need to tackle the root causes of inequality. The Government is to publish its response to the Acheson report with a White Paper on public health next month.

Peter Dangerfield, deputy chairman of the BMA's board of science and education, said: "If you can influence what happens in childhood, you influence the health of the adults [they become] and their children and that must be good for the country."


Death Rates

1= Sweden 4

1= Singapore 4

1= Finland 4

4= Switzerland 5

4= Spain 5

4= Iceland 5

7= Slovenia 6

7= Norway 6

7= Netherlands 6

7= Monaco 6

7= Japan 6

7= Germany 6

7= France 6

7= Denmark 6

7= Austria 6

7= Australia 6

7= Andorra 6

18= UK 7

18= Ireland 7

18= New Zealand 7

29= US 8

43= Chile 13

99= Philippines 38

109= Turkey 47

146= India 111

159= Pakistan 136

191= Niger 320

Source: Unicef