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Health stats prove child poverty is real - doctor

Tuesday 10 Dec 2013 9:29a.m.

Health stats prove poverty is real - doctor

A child health expert says it doesn't matter how you define child poverty – the fact is an increasing number of children are getting sick with poverty-related illnesses, which proves the issue is real.

Dr Liz Craig, senior clinical epidemiologist at the New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service, says since 2007, hospital admissions for poverty-related diseases are up 21 percent.

"What we're seeing is kids coming in with pneumonia, with viral infections, with skin infections," she said on Firstline this morning.

"We're seeing also lung scarring – permanent lung scarring like bronchiectasis – which means that some of these kids, the infection will impact on them many years later."

But while Finance Minister Bill English admits diseases like rheumatic fever are too common, he says statistics released by the Children's Commissioner yesterday are "misleading" because "child poverty is getting a little bit better".

Yesterday's report claimed 25 percent of Kiwi kids are in poverty, defined as living in households with an income below 60 percent of the average. By this measure, child poverty in New Zealand has almost doubled since the 1980s. One in 10 kids often go without nutritious food, doctors' visits and warm clothes.

But Mr English says rates of poverty depend on the measurements used, and the report sets the bar much lower than others done overseas, for example in the European Union.

"The numbers in poverty are reducing, and you might expect that as the economy picks up, because that's going to be the biggest effect for lifting children and families above those poverty lines," he said on Firstline.

"The high priority here is those children who are in persistent poverty or persistent deprivation. For people who are in work, Working for Families is a well-funded scheme that we've maintained through some pretty tough times, and it helps families considerably."

Respiratory illnesses are often linked to living in crowded, cold houses – and Dr Craig says the skyrocketing cost of housing is contributing to poverty and the increased number of hospital admissions.

"If families can't afford the rent because there's some real issues with cost of housing, particularly in the upper North Island, then what seems to happen is you need to get extra people in the house to actually pay the rent – and then if someone comes in and they've got a respiratory infection, it goes through the whole house and baby gets sick. That's some of the issues that we're seeing."

She suggests a housing warrant of fitness could improve the condition of rental properties, and although it could increase rents, at the moment all taxpayers are covering the costs of substandard housing through the health system and it's a conversation the country needs to have.

"Are we going to look at that, or are we going to just end up paying for hospital admissions?" she asks.

The Government is looking at a warrant of fitness scheme for private rentals, developed by the Housing and Health Research Programme and the Green Building Council. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has expressed cautious support for the idea.

3 News

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