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.
ImmunisationImmunisation 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 activityGood 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.
AsthmaAsthma 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.
DiabetesDiabetes 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.
ArthritisArthritis 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 healthThe 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 preventionThe 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 allergiesMandatory 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 healthMinisterial 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 LifeThe 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 CheckIn 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 MedicareThrough 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:
- Healthy Children - Strengthening Promotion and Prevention Across Australia. National Public Health Strategic Framework for Children 2005-2008 (PDF 306 KB)
Research and Information
Children’s Headline IndicatorsHeadline 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.
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.
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.
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Useful Department of Health and Ageing links:
- HealthInsite: life stages and events- links to health information on birth, childhood and adolescence.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Child Health publications list
- Youth Health
Links to state and territory government health departments
- Australian Capital Territory
- New South Wales
- Northern Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
Links to non-government organisations in child health
- Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY) is a national collaboration of researchers, policy makers and practitioners from a broad range of disciplines who are together building a better future for Australia's children and young people.
- Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, the research partner of The Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, is Australia's largest child health research institute, focussing on biomedical research directed to health-related outcomes in children and adolescents.
- National Investment for the Early Years (NIFTeY) is a group concerned with raising the awareness of the importance of the first three years of life.
- Early Childhood Australia (ECA) is interested in issues relating to the education and care of children from birth to eight years.
- SIDS and Kids are a non-profit organisation working to raise awareness and reduce the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
- Telethon Institute for Child Health Research focuses on developing multidisciplinary child health research.