FRIDAY, July 16, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The federal government's annual report on the well-being of America's children, now numbering close to 73 million, offers both good and sobering news.
On the positive side, the teen birth rate has hit a record low, youth are less likely to commit or be the victim of violent crime, and the overall death rate has decreased for children and young teens.
These factors are somewhat offset, however, by a disturbing rise in the percentage of children who are overweight. There has also been a small increase in the percentage of low birth weight babies, the infant mortality rate and the percentage of children living in poverty.
The report, America's Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2004, is the eighth survey of its kind. It was released Friday and was compiled by a forum of 20 federal agencies.
"The drop in adolescent birth rates is one of the biggest success stories," Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said during a telebriefing.
The rate has been declining since 1991, when there were 39 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 17. In 2001, that number was 25, and in 2002 -- the most recent year for available statistics -- it was down again to 23. The greatest drop was among black non-Hispanic girls, who had the highest rate when the first study was done, Alexander said. In that group, the rate has declined from 86 per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 17 in 1991 to 41 per 1,000 in 2002.
Another success story is the drop in the percentage of children victimized or committing a serious violent crime. There were 11 serious violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault) per 1,000 youths aged 12 to 17 in 2002, down from 15 in 2001.
Due to this decline in the past decade, "nearly 10,000 murders of children did not occur," said Lawrence Greenfeld, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Other positive trends include:
- teen smoking, which has fallen to the lowest level (15.8 percent of 12th graders) since data started to be collected in 1975;
- the chickenpox vaccine, which reached an all time high of 81 percent coverage in 2002;
- the Hepatitis B vaccine, with coverage at 90 percent;
Child mortality also declined from 18 deaths for every 100,000 children aged 5 to 14 in 2000 to 17 per 100,000 in 2001.
But the impact of these successes is overshadowed by the prevalence of childhood obesity, up from 6 percent for the period 1976-80 to 16 percent for 1999-2002.
"As a pediatrician, I can tell you that this is a major cause for concern," Alexander said. "The childhood overweight rate doubled in 10 years and tripled in 20 years [since 1980], and it's a trend that shows no sign of reversing. This is a concern not just for health of children but for those children when they become adults because overweight in childhood very strongly predicts obesity in adulthood with all the predilection to diseases that that portends."
Overweight and obesity increases the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and other health problems.
Most at risk were Mexican-American boys, 27 percent of whom are overweight, followed by black non-Hispanic girls, 23 percent of whom are overweight.
There was also a small increase in the infant mortality rate, from a record low of 6.8 per 1,000 infants in 2001 to seven of every 1,000 in 2002. On the other hand, most of the deaths occurred in the first month of life, and that may indicate these were infants who may have died before delivery in the past, said Edward Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There was also a slight increase in the rate of low birth weight infants -- from 7.7 percent in 2001 to 7.8 percent in 2002. And there was a rise in the percentage of children under the age of 18 who were related to a household member living in poverty (from 15.8 percent in 2001 to 16.3 percent in 2002). The overall poverty rate for people under 18 did not change statistically.
Although many indicators of illicit drug use did not change, the rates were still high in some categories. For instance, the percentage of 12th graders who reported having five or more drinks in a row (binge drinking) within a two-week period was 27.9 percent in 2003, versus 28.6 percent in 2002.
"That's over a quarter of 12th graders," Sondik said. "The stark reality of these numbers really hit home."
Finally, only 68 percent of children under 18 were living with two married parents, down from 77 percent in 1980.
View the full report at the Forum on Child and Family Statistics.