Thousands of children in the U.K. are dying prematurely because of the burgeoning wealth gap between the nation's rich and poor, according to a new study. In 2012, more than 3,000 babies in the U.K. died before they reached their first birthday, and a further 2,000 children and teenagers died between the ages of one and 19 – an alarmingly high number of premature and preventable deaths now linked to poverty.
The shocking statistics and revelations came to light through new research conducted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the National Children's Bureau (NCB). The study revealed that the country's wealth gap, together with a lack of targeted health policies to tackle child mortality, has led to significantly more child deaths in the U.K. than in other Western European countries. In fact, experts signal that child death rates in Britain are now worse than in South Korea.
The RCPCH and the NCB estimate that due to rising poverty, 2,000 more children – five per day – die annually in Britain than in Sweden. Sweden had the lowest rate of premature and preventable child deaths in the study. Among children under the age of five, 3,800 died in the U.K. in 2013 – a figure comparable to the under-fives mortality rates in Serbia and Poland, and higher than in Japan, Israel, Australia or South Korea.
Child Mortality in Britain
Influenced by low baby weight and premature births, more than half of childhood deaths in the U.K. occur in the first 12 months of a child's life. As well as maternal age and smoking, disadvantaged circumstances were cited as a leading factor in premature births and low birth weights.
After the age of one, road accidents and injuries are the most frequent causes of death amongst children in Britain, while suicide remains one of the most common causes of death in young people overall. A study compiled last year by the mental health charity MindFull showed that up to one third of children in Britain have either considered or attempted to take their own lives.
“Too many children who try to speak out about the way they are feeling are being let down or simply ignored,” said Emma-Jane Cross, founder and chief executive of MindFull.
Wealth Inequality Has Become a Matter of Life or Death
Child health experts in the U.K. are now warning that social and economic inequalities have become a matter of life or death. According to Dr. Ingrid Wolfe, lead author of the RCPCH and NCB report, countries that spend more on social protection for children have lower child mortality rates.
“The messages are stark and crucial,” Dr. Wolfe told The Independent. “Equity saves lives. Social protection is life-saving medicine for the population.”
Luciand Berger, the U.K.'s shadow Public Health Minister, reiterates the alarming concern that has been surfaced since the report was published.
“This report reveals that preventable child deaths are more likely to affect the poorest families. That is an appalling fact and a tragedy not befitting a civilized country.”
Dr. Wolfe and her peers argue several policies would help counter the alarming child mortality rates in Britain. The policies include withdrawing the welfare spending cap, introducing minimum unit alcohol pricing, inaugurating a 20-mile-per-hour speed restriction in built-up areas, and introducing a national database on child mortality.
But the British coalition government is quickly scampering away from solutions suggested in the RCPCH and NCB report. In 2013, the government shelved plans to introduce a minimum price for a unit of alcohol in England and Wales. Minister Jeremy Browne said the policywould remain “under consideration” but feared it would target responsible drinkers – and the government stuck by the decision regardless of overwhelming evidence that women who consume heavy amounts of alcohol during pregnancy increase the risk of low birth weight and going into premature labor.
Maternity Care Failings
The government's refusal to put a minimum price on alcohol also came amid clear evidence showing that those who live in deprived neighborhoods in England and Wales were more likely to binge drink than in the least deprived areas.
And in spite of promising more than 3,000 additional midwives, the British government is failing to provide maternity units in the U.K. with adequate staff. In response to reports of an acute shortage of midwives in hospitals, Andrew Gwynne, Labour's Shadow Health Minister, said: “David Cameron promised 3,000 more midwives, but he's failing to deliver them.”
Ultimately, the high rates of child mortality in the U.K. have been related to the poor organization of children's health services.
“Until our politicians begin to take the health of children – the health of the next generation of British citizens – more seriously, newborns and older children will continue to suffer and die needlessly,” said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet.
Nonetheless, as the current study makes clear, the U.K.'s soaring child mortality rates aren't merely a result of a broken National Health Service – but indicate painful realities induced by the nation's rising wealth gap.
The Office for National Statistics [released data] (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/uks-shocking-wealth-gap-widens-under-coalition-...) showing that between 2010 and 2012, the wealthiest 20% of U.K. households had 105 times more aggregate total wealth than the least wealthy 20% of households. This compared to the period between 2008 and 2010 when the richest 20% of U.K. households had 92 times more aggregate total wealth than the poorest 20% of households.
How Are Britons Reacting?
Wealth inequality has long evoked intense public reaction in Britain. When it became known in 2010 that income inequality was growing faster in the U.K. than in any other rich country, demonstrators flocked to London's streets in protest. Now, with the current study showing ways that wealth inequality is directly provoking childhood deaths, an escalation of public outrage in the world's "seventh richest country" might be forthcoming.
As Julie Shaw, a single mum of five from Devon in the south of England, told Occupy.com:
“Instead of branding us as scroungers, cutting our benefits and making visits to medical centers and hospitals with the kids a nightmare, they should put more effort into reducing the wealth gap and providing social protection to lower child death rates. If they don't, there will be trouble ahead.”