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No country is doing enough to protect children’s health and wellbeing

A damning report says children face two main threats globally, and most nations are failing to address these.

The kids aren't all right, according to a new report issued by a panel of child and adolescent health experts. Convened by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and The Lancet medical journal, the panel assessed how well 180 countries worldwide are doing at protecting the health and wellbeing of their youngest and most vulnerable citizens. The dismal conclusion? Not well at all.

There are two main threats that children face nowadays. The first is climate change, the second is predatory commercial exploitation. Both threaten health in different ways. Regarding climate change, UNICEF writes, “If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with current projections, this would lead to devastating health consequences for children, due to rising ocean levels, heatwaves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, and malnutrition.” Natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and violent conflicts are likely to increase along with rising global temperatures, further harming children's chances at a good future.

When it comes to advertising, the report says this is a distinct threat, too. Children and teens are exposed to an endless barrage of TV commercials and online ads (one estimate says 30,000 TV ads per year) for junk food, sugary beverages, e-cigarettes, and alcohol. Exposure is associated with increased purchasing, which leads to weight gain and obesity. UNICEF reports, “The number of obese children and adolescents increased from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016 – an 11-fold increase, with dire individual and societal costs.”

The commission gauged child wellbeing by measuring factors such as education, health care, nutrition, as well as greenhouse gas emissions and income gaps. It found that no country has it figured out. Poor countries need to do more to ensure child health and survival, while rich countries' continued excessive carbon emissions threaten everyone.

“The index shows that children in Norway, the Republic of Korea, and the Netherlands have the best chance at survival and wellbeing, while children in Central African Republic, Chad, Somalia, Niger and Mali face the worst odds. However, when authors took per capita CO2 emissions into account, the top countries trail behind: Norway ranked 156, the Republic of Korea 166, and the Netherlands 160. Each of the three emits 210% more CO2 per capita than their 2030 target. The USA, Australia, and Saudi Arabia are among the ten worst emitters.”

The only countries that are keeping CO2 emissions on target and landing within the top 70 countries (not ideal, but passable) on child flourishing measures are Albania, Armenia, Grenada, Jordan, Moldova, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Vietnam and Uruguay.

child health chart - The Lancet study© The Lancet

The report calls for immediate action, including stopping CO2 emissions as soon as possible, creating new policies to work toward child health and rights, and tightening regulation of commercial marketing. As Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, said, “This Commission calls for the birth of a new era for child and adolescent health. It will take courage and commitment to deliver. It is the supreme test of our generation.” Indeed, the stakes are too high to fail.

A damning report says children face two main threats globally, and most nations are failing to address these.