Around 5,000 people die each year and over 1,000 are children.
Britain’s child death rate, which was among the best in Europe 40 years ago, is now among the worst and experts warn that urgent action is needed to prevent ill health and improve NHS services.
Researchers from the University of Warwick have said that many child deaths could be prevented through a combination of changes in long-term political commitment, welfare services and healthcare services.
Infant deaths, which have always shown the highest mortality rates, have decreased in recent years, however compared with many other European countries child mortality in the UK remains high because of the gap between rich and poor.
The report from the University of Warwick found that child mortality rates tended to be higher in the Midlands and the north of England and lower in the south and east, with mortality rates higher amongst poorer families and boys in particular.
The majority of preventable deaths are highest amongst babies due to obesity, smoking and poor diet in mothers. Mortality rates are also significantly high amongst 15- to 17-year-olds from accidents, abuse, neglect and suicide.
Dr Peter Sidebotham, series lead author and associate professor of child health at the University of Warwick, said more could be done to prevent child deaths across all age groups.
“It needs to be recognised that many child deaths could be prevented through a combination of changes in long-term political commitment, welfare services to tackle child poverty, and health-care services.
“Politicians should recognise that child survival is as much linked to socio-economic policies that reduce inequality as it is to a country’s overall gross domestic product and systems of healthcare delivery.”
Strategies to lower child mortality rate
To reduce mortality rates, the researchers suggested various strategies. One key focus was promoting a healthy, non-smoking lifestyle for pregnant women to help reduce deaths amongst babies.
To prevent child deaths due to natural causes, the researchers suggested “enhanced and extended training of family doctors” and greater communication with families to spot signs of illness.
To reduce deaths due to injuries and suicides in older children, they said “there was a strong economic and ethical argument to target prevention strategies at the most vulnerable.”
Dr Sidebotham stated the importance of everyone working together to share relevant information about children and target the specific reasons where child death rates are high and use this to improve health care. “To be effective, child death reviews need to conducted by multi-disciplinary teams that share information about the circumstances of child deaths, with the goal of preventing future deaths and improving child health and welfare…Important details of the circumstances surrounding a death and can add to a greater understanding of how and why children die”.
Urgent action needed
Dr Hilary Cass, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, argues that these figures are an urgent wake-up call for healthcare professionals and policymakers.
She highlights the need to take action and do something to reduce the number of deaths caused by accidents, suicides, and abuse in 15-19-year-olds.
“It means equipping all professionals with the knowledge and skills to identify mental health difficulties early, better access to mental health support for children and young people, and making sure that Ofsted’s inspection framework for early years settings, schools and colleges includes consideration of the extent to which these settings promote children and young people’s social and emotional wellbeing.”
She added: “We also want to see some practical measures such as the reduction of the national speed limit in built-up areas to 20mph and the introduction of Graduated Licensing Schemes for novice drivers to reduce road deaths.”