Mixed Report Card for Children's Health

U.S. Study Gives High Marks for Immunization but Poor Grades for Birth Weights

From the WebMD Archives

July 13, 2007 -- The latest snapshot of the health and well-being of America's 73.7 million children brings some good news and some bad news. On the positive side, rates of immunizations among toddlers across all racial and ethnic groups have improved over the last decade.

On the negative side, the number of children born at low birth weights, or those weighing less than 5.5 pounds at birth, has increased slowly and steadily since 1984. The findings come from a report called America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2007. Compiled by many federal agencies, the new report offers a snapshot of how today's children are faring.

Immunization Rates

Immunization rates increased from 70% to 81% in the past 10 years, and these improvements could be seen among all racial and ethnic groups, according to the report. "The most significant issue is the persistent disparities in just about every health measure except immunization," says Edward Sondik, PhD, the director of the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md. "If we could translate this to other indicators, we would really be doing well."

In many other categories -- including asthma rates -- minority and poor children are still lagging, he says.

About 9% of children aged 0 to 17 have asthma, and about 5% of children had one or more asthma attacks during the previous year. Asthma seems to disproportionately strike African-American, non-Hispanic, and Puerto Rican children. In fact, 20% of Puerto Rican children currently have asthma.

"Over the last few years there has been an increasing interest in the fact that these figures are as high as they are," says Sondik. "Clearly the environment seems to be a factor, but other aspects that have to do with DNA and inherited characteristics and living conditions [may be involved]." This is the first year that asthma rates were included in the report.

Low Birth Weights

The percentage of infants born at low birth weight was 8.2% in 2005, up from 8.1% in 2004, 7.9% in 2003, and 6.7% in 1984.

Low birth weight babies are at increased risk of several serious health problems including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and hearing and vision difficulties. It can be caused by premature birth before 37 weeks, failure to grow in the womb, problems with the placenta (which provides food and oxygen to the developing fetus), multiple births, and maternal drug or alcohol use, explains Duane Alexander, MD, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md. Several studies are under way that seek to better understand and prevent low birth weight in babies, he says.

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Going forward, "preventing preterm birth is an important priority," Alexander adds.

The birth rate among teens aged 15 to 17 hit a record low in 2005. According to the report, compared with babies born to older mothers, babies born to adolescent mothers, particularly young adolescent mothers, are at higher risk of low birth weight and infant death.They are more likely to grow up in homes that offer lower levels of emotional support and stimulation, and they are less likely to earn high school diplomas.

Smoking and Alcohol

Levels of cotinine, a chemical released when the body breaks down nicotine, dropped significantly over the past 15 years, but more than one-half of children aged 4 to 11 still have detectable levels of cotinine.

In 1980, 21.6% of high school seniors smoked, but this number decreased to 12% in 2006. "That’s a significant change," Sondik says. "There was a smaller, but significant decline in alcohol use by 12th-graders over this period of time."

One in four 12th graders engaged in binge drinking in the last week, and 22% of 12th graders engaged in drug use in the last 30 days, the report shows. "These are really important figures, and while we have made progress, we have a considerable and continuing problem," he says.

Illicit drug use in the past 30 days remained stable from 2005 to 2006, according to the report. Eight percent of eighth graders, 17% of 10th graders, and 22% of 12th graders reported use in the past 30 days in 2006.

Overall Health

The report looked at 38 measures of children's overall health and well-being. Some other highlights include:

The rate of overweight children tripled over the past 25 years. From 1976 to 1980, 6% of children aged 6 to 17 were overweight. By contrast, this number rose to 18% in 2003-2004.

In 2005, 89% of 73.7 million kids had health insurance. This figure is down from 90% in 2004.

In 2005, 76% of children aged 2 to 17 visited a dentist, but just half of uninsured children saw their dentist.

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Sixty percent of children lived in counties where concentrations of one or more air pollutants were above allowable levels in 2005.

More children are being read to by a family member today than a decade ago, but children who live below the poverty level are less likely to be read to than children in other households.

Math scores have improved consistently in grades four through eight since 1990.

In 2005, 69% of children completed high school. By contrast, 49% of kids completed high school in 1980.

"Overall, many of the indicators showed no change in the past year, but the real story is in the 10-year time trends," Sondik says.

This is the 10th annual report.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 13, 2007

Sources

SOURCES: Media teleconference sponsored by the NICHD, July 12, 2007. America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2007. Edward Sondik, PhD, director, National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Md. Duane Alexander, MD, director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, Md.

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