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Are We Still Winning The War Against Childhood Diseases?

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Are We Still Winning The War Against Childhood Diseases?

A look at the ever-changing state of childhood diseases: the old, the new and those trying to make a comeback.

For a parent, there are few experiences as distressing as having a sick child. And because children’s diseases can spread quickly through day care centres, schools or the family home, we constantly worry.

Is that cough getting worse?

Is that a rash?

Why is my child tired all the time?

Are those asthma symptoms?

Generally, Australian children of all ages enjoy an excellent standard of health care and most childhood diseases run their normal course without much drama.

However, while older children and adults have already built up some immunity to common germs, a young child’s immune system is more vulnerable because it hasn’t been exposed to as many infections. And of course, small children are very tactile: they love touching their surroundings, putting things in their mouths and playing in ‘communicable proximity’ to their playmates.

When it comes to your children’s health, the key to keeping your stress levels manageable is to be vigilant but not paranoid

Caring for a sick child is part of being a parent. It’s never a question of if your child will come down with something – it’s a matter of when and how often. Sometimes it can seem like very little time passes between one ailment and the next.

When it comes to your children’s health, the key to keeping your stress levels manageable is to be vigilant but not paranoid (yes, this can be difficult at times!). If you are ever in any doubt about your child’s health, you should always seek professional medical advice immediately.

The state of childhood disease in Australia and around the world is perpetually changing. Breakthroughs in disease diagnosis and treatment are advancing quickly and our general understanding of childhood diseases is always improving. Doctors are better trained and medical techniques and equipment are increasingly sophisticated.

Boys Sleeping On Sofa While Holding Games Consoles

Today we have the Internet to help us research medical facts – which can be good or bad depending on the quality of the information and how we react to it.

The bad old days

Way back in 1910, about one in 12 Australian infants failed to survive to their first birthday.

Fast forward to 2010 and the statistics have improved considerably: only one in 240 infants doesn’t survive their first year. The situation for children aged 1-4 has markedly improved as well, with mortality rates decreasing by more than half in the past two decades.

Many communicable childhood diseases that were once common have now been largely contained through systematic vaccination programs, antibiotics and advances in treatment. This doesn’t mean they’re not still a danger today – many could easily return under the right circumstances. The battle against disease is never easy and never ends.

Here are a few of the worst culprits:

Measles

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. It is spread mainly through sneezing, coughing, runny nose, etc. Before immunisation was introduced in the 1960s, most Australians caught measles as children.

These days, most cases occur in young adults. Measles is a very serious illness that can lead to major health issues and even death in children. It is preventable through MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) immunisation, which is free in Australia when given at the recommended ages.

In the early 1900s, more deaths were attributed to diphtheria than any other infectious disease.

Diphtheria

You don’t hear much about diphtheria these days, but back in 1921 there were more than 20,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths in Australia during an epidemic. In the early 1900s, more deaths were attributed to diphtheria than any other infectious disease in this country.

Thanks to a diligent vaccination program, diphtheria is rare in Australia today. Those who travel to areas of the world where this disease is still prevalent should ensure their vaccinations are up to date, however.

Smallpox

Smallpox hasn’t been seen in Australia since 1938 and was declared officially eradicated in 1979.

Before an aggressive, methodical immunisation program was developed to combat it, this was one of the deadliest diseases in history, accounting for an estimated 300-500 million deaths in the 20th century alone – a number exceeding the combined death totals of all world wars.

Doctor injecting a young child

Polio

Although it has not yet been completely conquered, polio is another example of ‘victory by vaccination’, with only four deaths from polio reported in Australia since the 1960s. A global eradication program (similar to what was implemented with smallpox) is underway and resulted in fewer than 500 cases of the disease being reported globally in 2001.

It’s still proving a difficult disease to finish off, however, with occasional outbreaks popping up in countries where it is still endemic: Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

Australia was declared free of polio in 2000.

And because human beings like to travel, there are inevitable ‘leaks’ into other countries as well. Until polio is completely defeated, there is no room for complacency.

Although Australia was declared free of polio in 2000, an imported case of the disease occurred in Melbourne in 2007, involving a Pakistani student who developed paralytic polio after returning from a trip to Pakistan.

Hib (Haemophilus influenza, type B)

Hib (not to be confused with HIV) is an upper respiratory bacteria that can cause a range of serious diseases, especially in younger children. It’s associated with a broad spectrum of medical conditions including pneumonia, meningitis, infectious arthritis and ear and skin infections.

Hib vaccines became part of the Australian vaccination schedule in 1993, and since then, notified cases of Hib infections in this country have been reduced by more than 90 per cent. Before these vaccinations became routine, Hib was a common cause of life-threatening infections, especially in children under two years of age.

Scarlet Fever

Back in the pre-antibiotic days, parents justifiably feared scarlet fever due to its highly infectious nature. These days, it is much less of a problem – a treatment of antibiotics will normally take care of it in a week or so.

Typical symptoms include a very red sore throat, red body rash and fever. Scarlet fever tends to affect primary school-age children more than any other age group.

Because mumps is contagious, this increase in young adult infections means there is therefore a greater risk of infection for children who have not been immunised against this viral disease.

Down, but far from out

Mumps

These days, many parents don’t give mumps a second thought. However, quite a few of today’s adults left school before the country-wide immunisation program came into effect in 1998, and studies are showing that among young adults, mumps has been increasing since the new millennium.

There were 60 notified cases in 2002, 231 in 2005 and 512 in 2007.

Because mumps is contagious, this increase in young adult infections means there is therefore a greater risk of infection for children who have not been immunised against this viral disease.

Diseased girl lying in bed coughing

Whooping Cough

Cases of whooping cough (pertussis) are on the rise in Australia. Between January 2014 and January 2015, over 4500 cases were reported to the Department of Health and Human Services, representing a 56 per cent increase from January 2013.

Whooping cough is an extremely contagious respiratory infection, with children in their first year of life being the most vulnerable to its severe complications. Adults can also become infected.

The most effective measure in controlling whooping cough is immunisation (including booster shots). While the vaccine does not guarantee complete protection (even the immunised can still potentially contract the illness), it does reduce the severity of the disease.

Adults comprise the main reservoir of infection because of their diminishing immunity after childhood vaccination.

Fresh challenges in the new millennium

While medical advances have greatly reduced the dangers from many childhood illnesses that affected previous generations, these illnesses have been replaced with a whole new set of health issues in the 21st century:

Obesity and excessive weight in children is a global problem, and Australia is far from immune.

Childhood obesity – a national epidemic

Obesity and excessive weight in children is a global problem, and Australia is far from immune. National studies show that between 1985 and 1995 alone, the combined number of obese/overweight children more than doubled.

In addition, a 2004 study of children from kindergarten age up to year 10 concluded that rates of overweight or obese children in NSW went from about 10 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2004.

chicken cheese Hamburger on obese fat boy hand

Obese children have a higher chance of becoming obese adults. Childhood obesity can lead to a range of health issues, including diabetes, sleep disorders, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

In most cases, childhood obesity is completely preventable through simple lifestyle changes.

Diabetes and Australian children

Type 1 diabetes is the most common type of childhood diabetes, and Australia carries the dubious distinction of ranking seventh in the world for prevalence of this disease in the 0-14 age group.

Diabetes is extremely serious – it’s currently one of the ten leading causes of death in Australia

In addition, increasing numbers of Australian children are now being affected by Type 2 diabetes – a disturbing trend related largely to improper diet and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Diabetes is extremely serious – it’s currently one of the ten leading causes of death in Australia – and it’s a problem that is not going away.

ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the more common childhood disorders today, affecting an estimated 3-5 per cent of Aussie school children.

The medical community is still learning about its possible causes and debating diagnostic criteria and optimum treatments. Reported cases of ADHD spiked significantly in the 1990s, which could be due to (a) more efficient diagnosis, (b) more children developing ADHD and/or (c) more parents being aware of ADHD and reporting their child’s symptoms.

One controversial aspect of ADHD is the increasing reliance on strong prescription medications to control it, and the long term affects this might have on children’s health and society as a whole.

The stimulant prescription rate increased 34-fold for Australian children in the past twenty years, and the most frequently prescribed ADHD drugs (Ritalin, dexamphetamine and methylphenidate) are classified as Schedule 8 drugs – the same category as morphine, opium and cocaine.

A serious illness or disease always has a major impact on a family, and it can be a particularly emotional and stressful time when your own child becomes ill.

How modern childhood diseases affect your family

A serious illness or disease always has a major impact on a family, and it can be a particularly emotional and stressful time when your own child becomes ill.

Your child can often be frightened and confused about what’s happening to their body, and the demands on both parents may increase significantly, sometimes to the point where other aspects of life get put on hold. The whole family can get a bit stressed and more tired.

However, working with your partner and other family members as a unit to deal with a childhood disease can sometimes make a family more resilient and bring them closer, too.

SickChild (10)

When your child gets sick, you may have to take time off work to look after them. Aside from your ongoing loss of wages, there may also be substantial extra costs associated with more serious medical conditions that can drain your savings.

Life insurance in the form of Children’s Cover can help support you if your child suffers the unexpected.

As the main carer and provider for your children, it is important to know that you can look after their health when they need you most. If the illness is serious, you will already be shouldering a formidable emotional load, so the last thing you need is a financial burden as well.

Life insurance in the form of Children’s Cover can help support you if your child suffers the unexpected. Talk to your insurer about what they can offer in the way of Children’s Cover. This often comes in the form of an optional cover that can easily be added to your existing life insurance.

 

Sources
http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/C6A9CBD96E6BA43DCA257943000CEDF5?opendocument
http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&id=1857&np=303
http://www.kidspot.com.au/all-about-diptheria-and-vaccination/
http://riaus.org.au/articles/smallpox-a-vaccination-success-story/
http://www.infoplease.com/cig/dangerous-diseases-epidemics/smallpox-12000-years-terror.html
https://www.rcpa.edu.au/getattachment/72fd414e-8e44-40ec-bea2-19d2a52e2a2f/Immunisation-and-Vaccine-Preventable-Diseases.aspx
http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/immunise-hib
http://www.healthdirect.gov.au/scarlet-fever
http://www.news-medical.net/news/2008/10/20/42050.aspx
http://www.health.vic.gov.au/chiefhealthofficer/advisories/advisory-2015-01-increase-in-pertussis-cases.htm
https://www.healthykids.nsw.gov.au/stats-research/overweight-and-obesity.aspx
https://static.diabetesaustralia.com.au/s/fileassets/diabetes-australia/e7282521-472b-4313-b18e-be84c3d5d907.pdf
http://www.abc.net.au/health/library/stories/2003/04/24/1828304.htm
http://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/history#19877
http://www.cchr.org.au/adhd