International Children’s Day: More needs to be done to promote better health

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The health of children is important for every society. Measures for protecting and improving children’s health and development are in place across the WHO European Region, but much more can be done to promote better health and well-being and greater equality.

Most children in the WHO European Region enjoy a good standard of living and substantial progress has been made in recent decades. In spite of that, disparities in child health between and within countries in the WHO European Region persist. The Region includes countries with the lowest infant and child mortality rates in the world, but also some whose rates are 25 times higher.

The WHO European Region celebrates International Children's Day on 1 June to highlight the role of governments and societies in ensuring healthy growth, development and protection of all children.

What needs to be done in the WHO European Region?

The leading causes of death among children under five years in the Region are neonatal conditions (including prematurity, sepsis and birth asphyxia), injuries, pneumonia and diarrhoea. Half of all deaths during the first five years occur during the first month of life.

Child maltreatment is also a significant problem and has far-reaching consequences with poorer mental and physical health and worse social outcomes, including a propensity to be a victim or perpetrator of violence, in adolescence and later life.

Environmental determinants of health are estimated to account for about 17% of the total burden of disease in the Region. Environmental exposures that are associated with a high overall burden of disease among children and adolescents in the Region include poor indoor and outdoor air quality, inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene, mobility and transport patterns, hazardous chemicals, noise and the combined effects of climate change.

However, low-cost measures that have been shown to work – whether they target road traffic accidents or poverty – could prevent two thirds of deaths. Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental pollution, and poor environments aggravate socioeconomic disparities in cities. Children and adolescents need clean air, safe housing, nutritious food, clean water and a healthy way of life; they need friendly services that they can access.

WHO’s response to enabling change

The “European strategy for child and adolescent health and development” was endorsed in 2005 by all 53 Member States of the WHO European Region and has four key principles. It

  • takes a life-course approach, from prenatal life to adolescence;
  • recognizes the need for equity, and policies to address it;
  • promotes intersectoral action, and addressing the fundamental determinants of health; and
  • promotes participation and the need to involve young people in decisions about their own services.

WHO/Europe has supported over 15 Member States since the strategy was endorsed to develop national child and adolescent health strategies and action plans. A renewed strategy will be presented at the forthcoming WHO Regional Committee session in September 2014.

The aims of the renewed strategy are to:

  • enable children and adolescents in the WHO European Region to realize their full potential for health, development and well-being; and
  • reduce their burden of avoidable disease and mortality.

Countries will need to set their own objectives to meet their specific needs. The general objectives are to:

  • promote governance, partnerships and intersectoral action at all levels of society;
  • strengthen people-centred health systems and public health capacity to improve child and adolescent health and development; and
  • address social determinants of health and the equality gap for children, adolescents, parents and caregivers.

Overall, the aspiration is that all children and adolescents born and/or growing up in the WHO European Region should move into adulthood equipped with the necessary skills and competence to make positive contributions and enjoy a productive, healthy, happy life.