Report Details Gains, Reversals for U.S. Children

While teen birth rate hits record low, obesity is a growing worry

THURSDAY, July 12, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- The number of U.S. children not covered by health insurance increased from 2004 to 2005, as did the number of low birth-weight infants, the number of unmarried women having children and the rate of children involved in serious crime.

On the positive side, the teen birth rate dropped to a record low in 2005, the number of children living in homes where at least one parent works increased, and the number of children living in homes classified as "food insecure" dropped. Also, the number of teens completing high school increased.

Those are some of the key findings in a new U.S. government report, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2007, released Thursday.

"The report serves as a national report card providing a comprehensive overview of America's most valuable resource -- its children," Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said during a teleconference.

Alexander noted that the increase in children living in homes where at least one parent is employed full time "reduces the chances that a family will live in poverty."

As for low birth-weight infants, Alexander said much can be explained by increases in multiple births and premature births. "The percentage of infants born with low birth weight was 8.2 percent in 2005, up from 8.1 percent in 2004," he said. "This rate has increased slowly but steadily since 1984, when it was 6.7 percent."

The report also included a new gauge of sexual activity. The rate of high school students who reported ever having had sexual intercourse remained at 47 percent from 2003 to 2005, a decline from the rate of 54 percent in 1991.

Another teleconference speaker, Edward Sondik, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, noted a positive increase in childhood immunization rates. "Some 81 percent of children ages 19 to 35 months have had the recommended series of vaccinations. This has risen over the past decade from 71 percent," he said.

The birth rate among teens hit a record low in 2005, Sondik said. "The rate has dropped 40 percent over the past 15 years," he said. The greatest decrease was among white teens, where the decline in teen births dropped 60 percent, he noted.

"But still, the birth rate for black teens is about three times of that for whites, and the rate for Hispanics is four times the rate for whites," Sondik said.

The rate of unmarried women having babies has risen, Sondik also noted. "Children of unmarried mothers have a higher risk of having adverse birth outcomes and are more likely to live in poverty than children of married mothers," he said. "Overall, 37 percent of births are to unwed mothers."

Sondik went on to note that children's exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke has been reduced. Still, 59 percent of kids are being exposed to secondhand smoke, he said.

In a related concern, some 9 percent of American kids suffer from asthma, Sondik said, with significant differences depending on race and ethnicity. "About 13 percent of black children have asthma and about 9 percent of Hispanic children. But about 20 percent of Puerto Rican children have asthma," he said.

There's also a continuing racial and ethnic disparity in infant mortality, Sondik said, with the rate for black babies more than twice that of white ones.

Sondik also pointed to "continuing concern" about overweight children. "Although the recent data show no significant change, the percentage of children ages six to 17 who are overweight has tripled over the past 25 years," he said. An estimated 18 percent of U.S. kids are now overweight or obese, leaving them prone to a variety of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease later in life.

Among other findings in the report:

  • Eighty-nine percent of children had health insurance coverage at some point during 2005, down from 90 percent in 2004. Children with health insurance are likelier to have a regular and accessible source of health care, compared to children without insurance.
  • The violent crime victimization rate involving children ages 12 to 17 was 14 crimes per 1,000 juveniles in 2005, up from 11 crimes per 1,000 in 2004. While the 2005 rate was "somewhat higher" than the 2004 rate, the report said, it was far lower than the peak rate of 52 crimes per 1,000 in 1993.
  • Eighty-eight percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 had completed high school with a diploma or an alternative credential such as a General Education Development certificate in 2005. This represented a 1 percentage point increase from 2004 and a 4 percentage point increase since 1980.

Dr. Jay E. Berkelhamer, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that while the report is important, its findings need to be translated into action.

"These findings are consistent with other facts and figures that I have seen in other places," he said. "The report shows that many children are not faring as well as they should be in this country. We are not investing in kids the way we should. It's horrible. We need to be sure they get all the things they need, including education, safe environments and health care."

Berkelhamer said the federal government needs to take the lead in ensuring the well-being of children. "The government is doing a good job of putting out a report. Now they need to do a better job of making sure that we develop the programs and the resources to do something about it," he said.

"We have a societal obligation to make sure children are getting what they need," Berkelhamer added. "And they are not getting it the way they should for the richest country in the world."

More information

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SOURCES: July 12, 2007, teleconference with Duane Alexander, M.D., director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Rockville, Md.; Edward Sondik, Ph.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Atlanta; Jay E. Berkelhamer, M.D., president, American Academy of Pediatrics, Chicago; July 12, 2007, U.S. report, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2007
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