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Physical and mental health for young children
Physical and mental health for young children

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1.3 Preventable health conditions

Improvements in medicine and living conditions over the last 150 years have resulted in improved life expectancy and reduced child mortality, with more children surviving infancy. Significant medical developments included the discovery of vaccines and penicillin. Improved living conditions in countries like the UK, such as sanitation and access to clean water, have been important in improving health.

However, since the start of this twenty-first century, other threats to children’s health have emerged, many of which are preventable, and which are of great concern to global and national organisations. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s State of Child Health Report in 2017 stated that:

The health of infants, children and young people in the UK has improved dramatically over the last 30 years. Many will lead happy and healthy lives, but the future health and happiness of a significant number is in jeopardy. The bottom line is that the UK could do far more to improve child health and wellbeing.

(Viner et al., 2017, p. 4)

Communicable and non-communicable diseases

Health conditions can be categorised into those that are ‘communicable’ (can be from person to person), and ‘non-communicable’. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people became more familiar with communicable illnesses spread by micro-organisms – viruses, bacteria or fungi. On the other hand, health conditions can be caused by factors that are non-communicable, or not passed on by micro-organisms, some of which are also preventable. Table 2 summarises the two categories of health conditions and gives examples of the illnesses they cause, ways of preventing them, and the impact in adulthood.

Table 2 Summary of areas of preventable health conditions
HighlightedPreventable health conditions
Communicable: passed on by micro-organisms (viruses, bacteria and fungi) Non-communicable: not passed on through contact with micro-organism; many caused by poor nutrition, physical inactivity, unhealthy lifestyle and poor dental hygiene

Examples: some can be prevented by immunisation, e.g., poliomyelitis, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

Some can be prevented or minimised by good hygiene, especially handwashing, hygienic food preparation and a healthy environment, e.g., norovirus.

Impact in adulthood: infections can leave a legacy of disability, e.g., poliomyelitis

Examples: childhood obesity; inadequate nutrition; dental caries; mental ill health

Impactin adulthood: coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancers, poor mental health

Prevention of communicable health conditions

Thorough handwashing is one of the single most effective ways of reducing the risk of infections that are caused by bacteria, viruses and fungi that cause a range of infections.

Childhood immunisations are offered to most children in the UK and prevent serious infections, including measles, mumps and poliomyelitis. These conditions can be life-threatening but are preventable by giving children the full immunisation schedule (NHS, 2019). See the full regularly updated schedule here: NHS vaccinations and when to have them [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Remember that children arriving in the UK from other countries may not have been offered all vaccinations.

Prevention of non-communicable health conditions

The causes of such conditions can be influenced by factors in the child’s environment, such as social, economic, cultural and other lifestyle determinants. Living in poverty is a significant determinant of a children’s health.

Poor mental health is also a cause of concern. The presence of adverse childhood experiences can impact negatively on children’s emotional and social development, which can reduce their sense of wellbeing and increase the risk of mental ill health in childhood or later life.