Politics and our children’s health

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The year 2010 is turning out to be most interesting for those of us who live in North America.

South of the border, the United States has a president who is articulate, pragmatic and civil. He has chosen four priorities of huge scope — reforming health care, improving educational achievement, recovery of the economy and preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and Osama bin Laden’s adherents. He has a vision of where America should go and isn’t afraid to talk about it. President Barack Obama is doing this in a country that is innately suspicious of the government and Congress in Washington. Congress is dysfunctional and sick.

Which brings us to the state of health of our country. There are a number of ways of measuring it. One that I consider fundamental is to look at the health of our children. They are our responsibility and our future. The Canadian Paediatric Society has just issued its third report on ‘Canadian Public Policy and Child and Youth Health.’ The society reported on four areas —disease prevention, health promotion, injury prevention and policies related to the best interest of children and youth. The scope is national but the place where we can make a difference is within our own provinces. So, as the title of the report asks, “Are We Doing Enough?” in Alberta? This is a particularly topical matter for us as we watch the agony of the Alberta government trying to come to grips with a cumbersome, inadequately organized and bureaucratically overburdened health care system.

Well, the picture on child health is mixed. Alberta received a rating of Excellent for our publicly funded immunization programs. We got a rating of Good for prevention of adolescent smoking, children’s mental health care planning and bicycle helmet legislation. A Fair rating was given for child/youth advocacy. We failed in the following areas — ATV safety, booster seat legislation, snowmobile safety, Jordan’s principle (child-first principle for First Nation’s children) and child poverty.

Our record on child poverty is the most troublesome as it applies to our failure as a society. Some among us will undoubtedly rationalize our record by pointing out that we are doing all right compared with others. Child poverty in Alberta in 2007 stood at about 12 per cent (one child in eight). This was down from just over 14 per cent in 2004. Alberta also had the second lowest rate among the provinces and we have a lower rate than the national average of 15 per cent. Still, in having neither a strategy nor legislation targeted at reducing child poverty, we are condemning many of these children to poor physical and emotional health, educational failure and life-long hardship.

We know that child poverty is worldwide and it is ridiculous to continually set impossible national targets of zero per cent. However we should rank higher than 12th of 21 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and should surely be targeting a level comparable to Scandinavian countries where child poverty rates are under five per cent. Our provincial and municipal governments need to tackle the problems of those who are at highest risk — the disabled, immigrant populations and aboriginal families. Evidence based solutions are available — income and housing support measures, educational supports, youth job training and program enriched child day care. The recent lowering of provincial supports to People with Developmental Disabilities is so counterproductive to the health of our most vulnerable families and their children that one has to wonder what is going on with our collective common sense.

Maybe 2011 will be better.

Dr. Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.

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