Rising numbers of children living in poverty across Europe

Copenhagen, 17 September 2014

The number of children living in relative poverty is increasing across all Member States in the WHO European Region. The new WHO strategy – Investing in children: the European child and adolescent health strategy 2015–2020, launched today at the 64th session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe – identifies the risks for children and adolescents and outlines actions to ensure the health and well-being of all.

Countries will set their own objectives, but one of the key objectives for all is to address the social determinants of health and the equality gap for children and adolescents.

“The number of children living in relative poverty is rapidly growing in all Member States. This directly affects their health and well-being by leading to ill health, shorter life expectancy and lack of opportunities in adulthood. We owe it to our children to give them the best start in life, and to allow them to live healthy and safe lives until they reach adulthood,” says Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

Rapidly increasing inequality in every Member State

The European Region includes not only countries with the lowest number of infant and child deaths in the world but also those where children are 25 times more likely to die before age 5. In addition, mortality varies not only between but within countries. Child poverty is a risk factor for poor health even in high-income countries, and inequality is growing.

  • More than half of deaths among children aged under 5 years result from diseases that simple, affordable, proven measures can prevent or treat.
  • Each year, almost 1 million children in the Region do not receive all their scheduled vaccinations, resulting in 90 000 cases of measles and 70 000 cases of rubella being reported in the past three years.

Protection from child maltreatment

Child maltreatment is a leading cause of health inequality and social injustice, and poorer and disadvantaged children are at greater risk. The rates of homicide in children below 15 years in low- and middle-income countries in the Region are more than twice those in high-income countries. Investing in children: the European child maltreatment prevention action plan 2015–2020 was launched today at the Regional Committee session.

Factors that further influence inequality

Good nutrition and healthy eating behaviour improve school performance and social outcomes, and are key to creating healthy lifestyles that will carry on into adulthood. Unfortunately, children and adolescents from low-income households are more likely to engage in behaviour that compromises their health, such as tobacco and alcohol use and low consumption of fruit and vegetables. Across Europe, 18% of adolescents smoke on a weekly basis; the rate is higher for those in low-income families.

Pay-off from investing in every child

Investing in health, social care and education in early childhood and working with people who need support to improve their parenting skills have proved to be the most effective ways to improve development and reduce inequality. Evidence shows that high-quality early-years services can compensate for the effects of social disadvantage on early child development. All children and adolescents should have the opportunity to make a secure and healthy transition from childhood to adolescence and thence to adulthood, equipped with the skills and competences they need to contribute to their own health and society.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe website offers further information on:

  • the new strategy for child and adolescent health;
  • the action plan to prevent child maltreatment; and
  • the 2014 Regional Committee.

For further information, contact:

Tina Kiaer
Communications Officer, Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course
WHO Regional Office for Europe
UN City, Marmorvej 51
2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Tel.: +45 30 36 37 76 (mobile)
Email: tki@euro.who.int   

Gauden Galea
Director, Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course
WHO Regional Office for Europe
UN City, Marmorvej 51
2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Tel.: +45 45 33 66 78
Email: lifecourse@euro.who.int