2009: The Year in Children’s Health

I always loved those year-end compilation lists – most notable movies, books, music recordings, sports events, you name it.  Here's my contribution for 2009 – the top stories about children's health.  Not listed in any particular order – just five issues I think we'll be talking about for years to come.  I acknowledge that I've probably left something out of crucial interest to some, so feel free to join the conversation.

1. Autism prevalence continues to rise

The U.S. government reported twice this year that more children than ever are being diagnosed with autism.  Most recently, the CDC reported the prevalence rate (from 2006 data) as 1/110.  Earlier this year, the DHHS (2007 data) reported a rate of 1/91.  Either way, we are in the midst of a true public health emergency.  I would like to second what Dr. Bob Sears wrote on HuffPo:

Here's my bottom line on this study: Autism is increasing. The rate is
somewhere between 1 in 91 and 1 in 110 children, with the majority
being boys. That is simply staggering. To think that in a large public
school (some are as big as 3000 students where I live), about 30 of the
children there could have autism. I see it in my practice. Ask any
teacher – it's all over the schools and in every neighborhood. Growing
up as a child in the 70s and 80s, I honestly did not know a single
child in any of the schools I attended who had autism. The increase is
real, and it's not going away. We need research and treatments. We need
to make sure families have access to those treatments. And these
families and their children need financial and emotional support.
Denying the epidemic is like a slap in the face of every parent and
child affected. Wake up America! It's time to get to the bottom of this!

2. More babies are more polluted

The Environmental Working Group continues to stun us with horrifying body-burden studies, documenting how toxic we are.  Sadly, newborns are polluted at all-time high levels in the womb.  The December 2009 EWG report, "Pollution in Minority Newborns," reveals that "up to 232 toxic chemicals" were found in 10 newborns of minority backgrounds.  These chemicals include BPA (a known endocrine-disrupter found in plastics), flame
retardants, synthetic fragrances and perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA, or C4), a member
of the Teflon chemical family. The bottom line?  EWG notes, "Our results strongly suggest that the health of all children is threatened
by trace amounts of hundreds of synthetic chemicals coursing through their
bodies from the earliest stages of life."  

3. The Swine Flu comes (and goes?)

Pandemic?  Fact or fiction?  No matter what your experience or feeling, hard to doubt that H1N1 is the health story of the year.  Whether related to prevention (especially regarding vaccine debates) or treatment (Tamiflu – safe? effective? found in our water?), swine flu proved to be our greatest health challenge in 2009. Thankfully, it does appear that cases are on the decline across the US and many parts of the world, according to the latest statistics from the WHO.  Of great interest, it appears that several complementary remedies – vitamin D, probiotics and elderberry – may modify response to influenza, possibly reducing the the risk of contracting the illness as well as overall morbidity and mortality.

4. Vaccines: The debate rages on

The H1N1 vaccine question fanned the flame of the great vaccine debate to new heights.  Even parents who typically did not question whether or not to immunize their children questioned this vaccine.   There were serious ethical debates about health care workers and mandatory flu vaccines, vaccinating children in school settings and the impact of philosophical exemptions on disease rates.  In NJ, my home state, we entered our second year of mandated flu vaccine for preschoolers.  For the second year, the mandate was temporarily suspended as vaccine supply could not keep up with projected number of children requiring vaccination.  Perhaps new leadership in the State House will consider a repeal of this policy, one supported by little scientific rationale.

5. Health Care Reform

As the Senate Bill near passage (and then must be reconciled with the House Bill, and so on…), one wonders what the impact will be on children's health care.  You don't hear much about that, do you?  Maybe it's 'cause kids don't vote, but watch out – Generation "WE" is about to become the biggest voting block in the US.  Children's Healthcare Fund has given a passing grade to the Senate legislation, but I think we can do much better.  Will access and affordability truly be improved?  And will we actually improve the quality of children's health?  Only when we are ready to accept that our current system is a disease-treatment system and not a wellness promotion system will we see true, sustainable, health care system change.  Maybe next year…

Here's hoping for a peaceful, happy and healthy 2010.

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