Chil­dren with res­pi­ra­tory con­di­tions face a twofold threat

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

As our NHS pre­pares it­self for a win­ter cri­sis of hos­pi­tal bed short­ages and emer­gency ad­mis­sions, it is our man­date to flag an is­sue that is con­tin­u­ally over­looked. We know that the el­derly are sus­cep­ti­ble to ill health caused by the drop in tem­per­a­tures, but the im­pact on young chil­dren with res­pi­ra­tory con­di­tions, such as asthma, is of­ten dis­re­garded.

Ad­mis­sions for peo­ple with res­pi­ra­tory con­di­tions al­most dou­ble dur­ing the win­ter – and the ma­jor­ity of those ad­mit­ted are young chil­dren. The UK is home to more chil­dren suf­fer­ing from res­pi­ra­tory con­di­tions than any­where else in Europe. Emer­gency ad­mis­sions and mor­tal­ity rates linked to these con­di­tions are also the high­est: a child ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an asthma at­tack is ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal ev­ery 20 min­utes.

Even more wor­ry­ing is that the threat to chil­dren’s health this win­ter is twofold. We know that cold weather can cause acute episodes of air pol­lu­tion and re­search shows that these high air pol­lu­tion episodes can ag­gra­vate res­pi­ra­tory con­di­tions such as asthma. For chil­dren, whose de­vel­op­ing lungs are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to the ef­fects of air pol­lu­tion, the im­pact is even worse. Hos­pi­tal pae­di­atric wards could soon be filled with wheez­ing, splut­ter­ing chil­dren who are strug­gling to bat­tle the dou­ble bur­den of cold weather and toxic air. The un­de­ni­able truth is that most of these cases are pre­ventable.

Ear­lier this year, Unicef UK found that one-third of chil­dren are grow­ing up in an area with dan­ger­ous lev­els of air pol­lu­tion. When they do seek med­i­cal help, re­search from the Bri­tish Lung Foun­da­tion shows that around 2,500 health cen­tres are sit­u­ated on highly pol­luted roads. It is clear that too lit­tle is be­ing done to pro­tect our so­ci­ety’s most vul­ner­a­ble from the harm­ful ef­fects of toxic air.

In 2017, the health and so­cial care costs of air pol­lu­tion were more than £40m – and this will only rise if the cri­sis wors­ens this win­ter.

Last week the bud­get be­came yet an­other wasted op­por­tu­nity by the gov­ern­ment to ad­dress the key is­sues af­fect­ing chil­dren. While it in­cluded an ad­di­tional £20m for lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to tackle air pol­lu­tion, this mea­gre of­fer­ing is in­suf­fi­cient to ad­dress the prob­lem.

It is im­per­a­tive that the gov­ern­ment takes ac­tion by fund­ing and pri­ori­tis­ing poli­cies and health in­ter­ven­tions to pro­tect chil­dren from toxic air.

Mike Pen­rose Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at Unicef UK, Prof Rus­sell Viner

Pres­i­dent of the Royal Col­lege of Pae­di­atrics and Child Health (RCPCH), Prof Stephen Hol­gate

Spe­cial ad­viser on air pol­lu­tion for the Royal Col­lege of Physi­cians

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