by Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe
The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study demonstrates unequivocally the importance of adolescence to the short-, medium- and long-term health and well-being potential of girls, boys, women and men. That is why HBSC is such a valuable resource. It explains how social determinants and health behaviours in childhood and adolescence lead to ongoing physical and mental health problems in adulthood and, more important, points us to interventions that support the development of positive health behaviours and well-being in children and young people that can become lifelong.
Despite the considerable advances made in the WHO European Region over the decades in improving the health and well-being of young people and recent actions to reduce the health inequalities many of them face, some remain disadvantaged from birth by virtue of their gender. That disadvantage, which spreads across the life-course of girls and women in social, educational, employment and welfare spheres, has an early and lasting impact on health and well-being.
A recent report from the WHO Regional Office for Europe looking at women's health in Europe across the life-course shows that opportunities are present during childhood and adolescence for evidence-based actions to prevent future ill health and fully realize girls' health and well-being potential. But inequalities in health linked to gender and social factors, such as place of residence, maternal/family socioeconomic status, ethnicity and migrant status, persist for girls across the Region.
Gender issues arising in childhood and adolescence also affect the long-term health and well-being prospects of boys. Many of the health behaviours and habits that lead to illness, disability and premature death in adult men – cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and mental health problems – have their roots in the adolescent period. Evidence from throughout the Region shows us that men die earlier and live considerable portions of their lives in poor health: HBSC helps us to understand why.
Addressing child and adolescent health and well-being requires whole-of-government and whole-of society approaches that reach far into the fabric of communities and societies to change entrenched attitudes and behaviours. The European policy for health and well-being, Health 2020, lays the foundations for intersectoral action that can serve to promote improvement across all the areas that affect the health and well-being of children and young people – education, welfare, transport, leisure and social protection, to name but a few.
The HBSC study takes its place among a rich trove of resources developed through the Regional Office, which includes Health 2020, the review of social determinants and the health divide in Europe, and the European strategy for child and adolescent health. The strategy for child and adolescent health in particular offers countries an invaluable tool to promote and nurture the positive health behaviours in childhood and adolescence that lay the foundations for healthy adulthoods.
Growing up unequal, the title of this sixth international report from the HBSC study, serves as a call to action to all of us involved in protecting and promoting the health and well-being of children and young people in Europe. HBSC invites children and young people to tell it like it is and highlight the issues that are important to them. Those issues must also be important to us.