Child Health

A good start in life is important to the health and wellbeing of children. This page outlines many of the activities being undertaken to enhance child health and wellbeing.

Page last updated: 12 January 2012

Most Australian children are healthy and doing well, but we can always do better. Australia has a good record in child health with significant achievements over the last few decades. For example, over the last 20 years child mortality rates fell by half, and immunisation coverage rates for one-year-olds increased from 53% in 1989-90, to over 90% since 2000. Ensuring children are healthy sets them up for life, and can help reduce later incidence of chronic diseases.

Childhood is a complex area with many factors combining to influence children’s health and development. A child's health and wellbeing depends on what happens to them as individuals, as part of a family, as members of communities and within Australian society as a whole.

There is sound evidence that prevention initiatives early in life are highly effective. Prevention, early detection and early intervention with respect to health, education and social problems can improve outcomes for children.

This webpage outlines some of the major activities to improve child health and wellbeing.

Immunisation

Immunisation is a simple, safe and effective way of protecting children, and the wider community, against certain diseases. The Immunise Australia Program has increased national immunisation coverage rates and has helped reduce the incidence of vaccine preventable diseases in the community. Under the Immunise Australia Program, the National Immunisation Program (NIP) includes: provision of free vaccines to Australians; recording of immunisation coverage by the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register (ACIR), and community education programs and technical advice on NIP vaccines.

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Nutrition and physical activity

Good nutrition healthy eating and regular exercise are important in preventing diet-related conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Regular physical activity and healthy food can make a difference in preventing these diseases. Current activities designed to assist the general community, including children and adolescents, to choose a healthy diet and increase their physical activity include the following:
  • The Healthy School Communities Program, which provides grants to community organisations associated with primary and secondary schools to initiate local healthy eating activities;
  • Focussing on addressing obesity through the Healthy Weight 2008 policy (PDF 260 KB);
  • Assisting health care providers, parents, child care workers and the general community in choosing healthy food for children in their care through The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating;
  • Encouraging healthy lifestyles that minimise the risk of the development of diet-related diseases within the Australian population through the NHMRC's dietary guidelines; and
  • Raising public awareness of the importance of healthy eating through the Go for 2 and 5 campaign and the importance of physical activity through the Get Moving campaign.

In June 2004, Building a Healthy Active Australia package was announced to address childhood obesity. This package includes 4 main initiatives. One such initiative is Healthy Eating and Regular Physical Activity - Information for Australian families to give practical help about how to make healthy eating and physical activity part of their everyday lives. 

The National Go for 2 & 5 fruit and vegetable, healthy eating information program was launched on 28 April 2005. Campaign materials and other associated information are on the website.

The Building a Healthy Active Australia package also includes the Get Moving program announced on 3 February 2006 to encourage children to undertake at least an hour a day of physical activity.

In July 2004, the Physical Activity Recommendations for Children and Young People. Resource kits have been sent to every school to assist them in encouraging students to eat well and be physically active.

In 2007 the Government, as part of its election commitments, announced an initiative to address childhood obesity through the development of guidelines on healthy eating and physical activity for early childhood settings. $4.5 million was provided in the 2008-09 Budget over five years from 2007-08. More information can be found on the Early Childhood Nutrition pages.

Asthma

Asthma is a National Health Priority Area. The prevalence of asthma has increased in recent years, with over two million (11%) of Australians affected, including one in every six children.
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Asthma is a condition which affects individuals differently, so it is usually defined to reflect its acute and chronic nature as:
  • an inflammatory disease of the air passages, making them prone to narrowing and increased mucus production. It becomes difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. Symptoms include wheeze, shortness of breath, chest tightness and cough.
  • a chronic condition with attacks occurring at varying intervals and with varying degrees of severity. Over many years, persistent asthma may cause permanent narrowing of the airways, resulting in reduced response to available treatments. Severe acute attacks can result in death.

Further information:

Diabetes

Diabetes is a National Health Priority Area. Diabetes mellitus is a condition where the body cannot maintain normal blood glucose levels. It is caused by resistance to, or deficient production of, the hormone insulin, which helps glucose move from the blood into the cells. When the body does not produce or use enough insulin, the cells cannot use glucose and the blood glucose level rises.

Two different types of diabetes can affect children:

  • Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common chronic conditions of childhood, although about half of all new cases are among adults. It accounts for 10-15% of people with diabetes.
  • Type 2 diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases among people aged 40 years and over. However, the number of children and people under 40 years of age being diagnosed with the condition is increasing. It accounts for 85-90% of people with diabetes.

Further Information:

Arthritis

Arthritis is another National Health Priority Area. It is a condition which only rarely affects children. The National Action Plan for Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoporosis aims to improve health-related quality of life for Australians, including children, with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, and to prevent where possible the development of these often debilitating conditions. Strategies include developing links to local and national programs and frameworks, including school health programs that focus on potentially modifiable risk factors for the prevention of chronic conditions related to arthritis in children.

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Mental health

The National Mental Health Strategy and National Suicide Prevention Strategy recognise the need for effective action to promote mental health and to prevent the development of mental health problems in children. This requires early cooperative interventions through partnerships extending across the broader health sector. A range of initiatives is being implemented that take a population health approach to mental health promotion. This includes providing relevant professional development to secondary school teachers.

MindMatters aims to embed promotion, prevention and early intervention activities for mental health and suicide prevention into Australian secondary schools from the government, independent and catholic systems of education. The ‘whole school’ model focuses on the ways schools can enhance protective factors for its students by: firstly, providing a mutually respectful, inclusive, safe and supportive environment free from prejudice and discrimination; secondly, ensuring that the whole curriculum, across all subject areas, promotes wellbeing by enhancing respect for diversity and providing opportunities for participation, achievement, communication and relationship building; and thirdly, working in partnership for the wellbeing of the total school community.

The "Promoting Better Mental Health" Initiative aims to help young people with mental health problems and related drug and alcohol problems. The cornerstone of this initiative is the establishment of a National Youth Mental Health Foundation. 

The Foundation will have a particular focus on early identification and intervention for young people, aged 12-25 years, at risk of developing mental health problems, or for those already showing early signs of mental health problems or associated drug and alcohol problems.

Injury prevention

The Draft National Injury Prevention Plan 2004 Onwards (PDF 224 KB), currently under development, will provide a broad strategic framework for activity in identified priority areas including falls, poisoning, drowning and near drowning in children aged 0-14. The National Child Safety on Farms Strategy provides safety guidelines for parents, children, young people and those caring for children in rural settings.

Food allergies

Mandatory requirements for food labelling allow parents and children to select appropriate foods to manage their food allergies.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has developed a Standard on food allergen labelling, addressing requirements to declare certain allergens. FSANZ is also collaborating with Anaphylaxis Australia and the Australian Food and Grocery Council on measures to improve consumer understanding of allergen information on food labels

Indigenous child health

Ministerial Taskforce on Indigenous Affairs - Early Childhood Interventions Working Group
Early childhood is one of three identified priority areas under the whole of government arrangements for Indigenous affairs. This working group is comprised of representatives from all relevant Australian Government departments, including Health, Family and Community Services, Education, Science and Training and Prime Minister and Cabinet, among others. It is currently exploring options for implementation of early childhood initiatives from 2005-06.

Healthy for Life

The Healthy for Life program aims to improve the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers, infants and children, and those affected by chronic diseases, through specific activities in maternal and child health and chronic disease in over 80 sites across Australia.

The program aims to develop a whole-of-life approach to break the cycle of poor health from childhood to adulthood. It will enhance the capacity of existing primary health care services in maternal and child health and chronic disease prevention and management.

Indigenous child health Check

In June 2005 the development of a new Medicare funded annual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Health Check was announced for children from birth to 14 years of age, which will complement the Healthy for Life program. This preventive health measure will provide an opportunity for health care professionals to undertake health promotion interventions such as discussing the importance of physical activity and healthy eating with the child and their family or carers.

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Strengthening Medicare

Through the Strengthening Medicare initiative, general practitioners are being paid an additional Medicare rebate of $5 for each bulk billed service they provide to Commonwealth concession card holders and children aged under 16 years. This bulk billing incentive increases to $7.50 for services provided in regional, rural and remote areas, and in Tasmania.

Other national child health policy documents:


Research and Information

Children’s Headline Indicators

Headline Indicators for Australia’s children are designed to focus the policy attention of Governments on a set of priority issues for children’s health, development and wellbeing through comparison of State and Territory data, and data from sub-populations of children. The Children’s Headline Indicators are a mechanism to assist policy and planning by measuring progress on a set of indicators that are potentially amenable to change over time by prevention or early intervention.

This project is funded by the Australian Health Ministers’ Conference, the Community and Disability Services Ministers’ Conference and the Australian Education Systems Officials Committee.

Further information

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) research.


Through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), funding is being provided for further research into the causes of SIDS.

A Healthy Start to Life

As part of this initiative by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), funding has been awarded to four research projects relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and further research into the broader Australian population.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC)

LSAC investigates the health, education, child and family functioning, child care and socio-demographics of Australian children. Data collection began in 2004 on two cohorts of children, infants and four/five year olds. The study will follow these children over several years, until at least 2010.

The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC)

Footprints in Time: the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children aims to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities, and government departments gain a better understanding of Indigenous children’s health, education, family relationships, community, culture and housing. The study will span remote, regional and urban communities. It is planned that the study will track two age groups over time - babies aged less than 12 months and four to five-year-olds. 

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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW)

The AIHW provides comprehensive information on the status of child and youth health and wellbeing. These reports are relevant to anyone interested in child health, including health planners and administrators, community and hospital practitioners, academic researchers, as well as the general public.

Further Information

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)

The ABS has a National Children and Youth Statistics Unit in response to the need for a statistical evidence base to support community and government policy related to children and youth.

Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS)

The AIFS is Australia's national centre for research and information on families. The Institute conducts research on issues that affect family stability and wellbeing and play a key role in the development of family policy. The Institute is located within the Family and Community Services Portfolio and is currently undertaking the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC).

Useful Department of Health and Ageing links:


Links to state and territory government health departments

Links to non-government organisations in child health

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