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Sydney Morning Herald – Tuesday 3 May 2005


Children fatter but, overall, healthier

By Stephanie Peatling


Australia's 3.9 million children aged 14 and under are now more likely to be vaccinated and to go to preschool but less likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome or be in a juvenile justice facility, according to a snapshot of children.


The report, by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, says obesity, asthma, dental health and the number of women who smoke during pregnancy are of concern. It is the first time the researchers have looked beyond health to other issues affecting children such as homelessness, violence and parental health and disability.


The Minister for Family Services, Kay Patterson, said the report showed "the majority of children are faring well".


"While the report's findings are overall very positive, they do reveal that there are groups of children whose health needs to be improved," she said. "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have poorer health and wellbeing on the whole."


Children make up 30 per cent of the population, but declining fertility rates and a "greying" population mean they are likely to be only 18 per cent by 2011.


The average life expectancy for today's babies is 77.8 years for males and 82.8 years for females.


In the past two decades the infant mortality rate has halved, from 9.6 per 1000 live births in 1983 to 4.8 in 2003.


Mortality rates also fell by more than half. One of the main reasons for the big decline was the drop in rates of death from sudden infant death syndrome - down by 84 per cent between 1983 and 2003. SIDS still caused 17 per cent of infant deaths.


Vaccination rates were high: 92 per cent of two-year-olds were immunised, although the proportion fell to 84 per cent among six-year-olds.


Most children aged between two and 14 were a healthy weight, with about 20 per cent of boys and girls overweight or obese.


The study found that between 1990 and 2000, the number of decayed teeth in children declined - from 2.1 to 1.7 in a child aged six, and from 1.4 to less than 1 in children aged 12.


"However," the report notes, "in more recent years this decline appears to have ceased, and there are signs of decay experience among children increasing."


The Medical Journal of Australia published an editorial on the report saying it revealed "huge gaps" in knowledge about obesity and mental illnesses.


The best available information on obesity is now 10 years old, the journal says, while the research on child mental health is seven years old.


"A need for up-to-date national data on the social and geographic distribution of childhood obesity and mental disorders stands out as a priority," the journal says. " If current social changes persist, the worsening trends in obesity and mental disorders seem likely to continue, and the children most affected will be those in disadvantaged and disrupted families."

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