Children with respiratory conditions face a twofold threat
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