From swine flu to obesity to dangerous plastics, many issues that affect children’s health garnered media attention in the year 2009. Here’s a rundown of the some of the biggest and most important stories:
This is the story that caught the most attention—for good reason. Not only is the H1N1 influenza virus very contagious, it appears to particularly affect young people. H1N1 caused more pediatric hospitalizations and deaths than we usually see with the seasonal influenza virus, which is very scary for parents (and pediatricians!). The virus led to countless school closings—sometimes to control the spread, and sometimes because there weren’t enough teachers left to teach!
We’ve had some good news recently: The vaccine, which appears to be effective and safe, is now plentiful. While there was some concern about resistance, H1N1 is still generally treatable with medication (although it’s rarely necessary). And the number of new cases is steadily dropping—but it’s important not to let our guard down completely, because nobody knows for sure what this new virus will do next.
Bottom line: Keep washing your hands, and get vaccinated.
Health Care Reform
We all know that our health care system costs too much money, and doesn’t reach everyone. But how do we fix it? That’s the question President Obama and others have been struggling with. There are no easy answers, and lots of competing stakeholders. It’s very clear that the response will need to be multifaceted and built on compromise.
Children’s Hospital Boston has been doing its part not only to help, such as by working with insurers to cut costs and improve care, but to make sure that the needs of children aren’t lost in the debate. Dr. Judy Palfrey, the current president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a staff member of Children’s since 1974, has spoken and written eloquently about the health care needs of children.
Bottom line: This is an important issue that will affect each one of us. Stay informed—and talk to your elected officials!
Media, Technology and Kids
The media and technology are playing an increasing role in the lives of US children, and researchers are raising some red flags. Here are just a few of them:
• Children who spend more than two hours a day in front of screens are more likely to be obese
• Exposure to sexual content on TV has been linked to early initiation of sex—and multiple studies have shown that media exposure leads to more sexualized behavior in girls, and more dissatisfaction with their bodies
• The more children are exposed to violence in the media, the more likely they are to have aggressive behavior
• Excessive TV viewing is associated with poorer grades—and attentional problems
• Some studies have linked early TV viewing (before age 3) with lower developmental scores
• Teens who are addicted to the Internet are more likely to harm themselves
• According to a Pew study, half of teens 16 and 17 have talked on a cell phone while driving, and a third of them have texted behind the wheel
The ramifications of all this for our children are tremendous—and scary.
Bottom line: Pay attention to the media and technology use of your child. Set limits—and enforce them.
Obesity and kids
Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled. Right now, a third of US children are overweight or obese—and numbers are steadily rising. That’s an awful lot of kids destined to have heart disease and diabetes and all the other health (and social!) consequences of obesity.
Legislators and advocates are taking action, and we are seeing progress. More restaurants list calories, soda is coming out of more school lunchrooms, some companies are decreasing the sugar content of their foods and awareness is rising about the effect of ads for junk food and soda on children.
It’s a start, but it’s not enough; we’re going to need a grass-roots, comprehensive strategy to save our kids. That strategy needs to start at home; with two-thirds of U.S. adults either obese or overweight, grownups are hardly setting a good example.
Bottom line: Don’t ignore that “baby fat” or assume your child will slim down when he’s older. Make exercise and healthy eating part of your family’s everyday life—now.
This year, many states raised concern about Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used in many plastics, including baby bottles. Scientists have been concerned for years about possible health effects, especially for infants and pregnant women. In fact, Canada and the European Union have banned the use of BPA in products used by infants and small children.
To avoid BPA, look for the number 7 inside a triangle on the product; if you see that, don’t use it. While you’re at it, avoid 3 and 6; they contain phthalates, which are also possibly dangerous. 1, 2, 4 and 5 are better. Try not to use plastic containers when you heat things in the microwave, and wash them by hand instead of putting them in the dishwasher, as heat releases more chemicals.
Bottom line: As we figure out which plastics are dangerous and just how dangerous they are, try to use less plastic in general. Use glass, ceramic, and metal instead. Buy fewer plastic toys.
What pediatric health issues were you talking about this year? Are there any pediatric health issues (or general health issues) that people weren’t talking enough about in 2009? Look into your crystal ball: What do you see as the big health stories of 2010?
While you’re here, check out U.S.News & World Report’s listing of the top 10 health stories from 2009.