Unhealthy Start

Why are we faring so badly when it comes to the health of our children?

Listener 21 August, 2010.

Keywords: Social Policy;

We used to think New Zealand was the best place in the world to bring up children. Alas, this is no longer true, as the statistics in the box below show. They come from a report by the Public Health Advisory Committee, “The Best Start in Life: Achieving Effective Action on Child Health and Wellbeing”. The committee says the main reason we do so badly is that we have no properly resourced public agency committed to improving health and well-being outcomes for children.

We do better with our children’s education. The OECD-co-ordinated Programme for International Student Assessment found that of the 57 countries participating in its 2006 survey of the scientific, mathematical and reading abilities of 15-year-olds, no more than five (and sometimes only two) countries achieved a better result. Our students topped the English-speaking world for reading. On these measures we are already doing better than most other countries (including Australia). Sure, it’s not good enough, and there is a tail at the bottom where we need to do much better. But let’s celebrate our education success – just once.

One reason for the educational success has to be the Ministry of Education, which is totally committed to our children. In contrast, responsibility for our children’s health is spread through a variety of agencies, so no one is really responsible. That’s why the Public Health Advisory Committee did not recommend increasing measles immunisation and the like. Instead, it advocated introducing the type of strategic leadership we have in education but not in child health.

Indicative of our casual attitude to children’s health is that after six other major reports in the past decade, little has been done and there seems little urgency to do anything. This new report is not even published in hard copy, which possibly tells us what the Government really thinks about it. (It’s available online at tinyurl.com/2f7b4fk.)

What about the Children’s Commissioner? His tiny office, an independent Crown entity, does a good job promoting and defending children’s rights, but it has neither the remit nor the funding (its annual budget is about $2 million) to do the job the Public Health Advisory Committee wants.

It also has international recognition. The United Nation’s Children Fund (Unicef) gave its prestigious 2010 Aldo Farina Award to our first Commissioner for Children, Ian Hassall, for his sustained contribution to child-rights advocacy. (New Zealanders should also take a quiet pride in Unicef. Our New York delegation, led by Bill Sutch, played an important role in making it a permanent agency in 1949. When Unicef was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, it was suggested that New Zealand deserved a share in the recognition.)

I attended a function to honour Hassall’s award. It was a fun event, which included children from Paeroa School dressed up as the Children’s Rainbow Dragon of Peace (which is made from the sails of the Rainbow Warrior, which was sunk by state terrorists in 1985). John Angus, the current Children’s Commissioner, wanted to attend but he was urgently called away to look after his ailing father. Parents and child is a deal for life.

Our children are important for our future; let’s treat them better.


Out of 30 OECD countries, New Zealand is ranked:

• 21st for infant mortality (5.1/1,000 live births)

• 29th for measles immunisation rates (82% vaccinated by age two)

• 20th for the percentage of children living in poor households (15% of all children)

• 17th for children in overcrowded houses (31% of all children).

New Zealand fares poorly in other international comparisons. It

• is fourth to bottom of all OECD countries for injury deaths among one-to-four-year-olds

• has 14 times the average OECD rate of rheumatic fever

• has rates of whooping cough and pneumonia 5–10 times greater than the United Kingdom and United States

• has a four to six times higher rate of child maltreatment death than OECD countries with the lowest incidence.

<i>The Best Start in Life</i>