A healthy home for every child

Poverty and poor housing conditions put 40,000 New Zealand children in hospital every year. There is an un-level playing field for child health in New Zealand.
Published on
December 8, 2016

Not all children in Aotearoa New Zealand have access to good healthcare or a warm home. Too often, too many of our children are going to sleep in homes that are likely to make them sick. They may be damp, cold, or overcrowded, warmed by un-flued gas heaters, or not at all. 

Without insulation in these homes, our poorest children are facing a grim reality. They aren't getting a fair start at life, instead crippled by common illnesses like rheumatic fever and broncholitis. Going home to a house filled of pathogens and cracked windows doesn't sound appealing to most, and yet, we let over 300,000 New Zealand children sleep in homes like this each night.

The cost on the New Zealand healthcare system is immense. Over 40,000 New Zealand children are admitted to hospital every year due to poverty and inadequate housing. As children get sick over and over again, the New Zealand tax system is incurring the costs for their recovery. When these children go back home to the same cold houses, they cycle repeats itself, and everyone is left worse off.  

This problem exists in New Zealand largely because of a lack of regulation around acceptable housing standards. UNICEF New Zealand has called for the introduction of WOF for rental homes, as well as an accommodation supplement for tenants. It is hoped that these actions will be a part of helping to provide all New Zealand children with warm and healthy homes in the future. 

"It's time to acknowledge the urgency for families on low incomes for warm, secure, and affordable housing. It's time to involve these families in designing the solution.  How much money do people have to spend on rent? What’s the reasonable expectation? What are the ways that better housing can be delivered in the very short term, and over time?" - Vivien Maidaborn, UNICEF New Zealand Executive Director

Key statistics you need to know:

10% of Pākehā children live in crowded, damp, unhealthy homes – but this figure rises to 25% of Māori children, and 47% of Pasifika kids. In 2014, Māori children were 20 times more likely to be hospitalised for rheumatic fever than non-Māori/Pasifika kids… and Pasifika children about 60 times.12 per cent of children are living in homes with a major dampness and mould problem.40,000 children are admitted to hospital every year with poverty-related illness – mostly with respiratory and skin infections that can be prevented by adequate housing

 

A story by a pediatrician, Innes AsherA cold house in New Zealand is normal. It is so normal that we have become habituated to cold; we think of it like a natural condition.

Many international bodies recommend house temperatures be kept to 18°C at the bare minimum. I think most New Zealanders would consider this little-known fact remarkable.

When a house becomes colder, we fail to feel the chill. More than that, we fail to see the consequences for children who are left in the cold.

I have been working as a paediatrician since 1981. My heart still sinks every time I treat a child with a preventable disease. The problem doesn't exist in other countries and shouldn't here.

Housing can be unhealthy for children when the house is cold or damp, when there is overcrowding, when the choice of heating is bad or when heating is turned off altogether because it is unaffordable.

We have damp houses, and the damp, of course, encourages mould to fester. The particles in mould can cause airway inflammation, which can later result in serious problems within the lung tissue of the child and in narrowed congested airways.

In cold, viruses survive better. The cold allows disease to flourish while also inhibiting our resistance to fight back. It goes without saying that children are most vulnerable to cold and flu in these cases.

Un-flued gas heaters – common in New Zealand – produce noxious gases, which can cause coughing and wheezing. The Ministry of Health has said they should be used by no one, yet they remain common in our homes.

Overcrowding leads to rapid infection with diseases spread from family member to family member.

These problems with housing can cause hidden damaging diseases such as bronchiectasis – permanent scarring of the lungs. This is about as common as rheumatic fever, yet most people have never heard of it. 

There is an un-level playing field for child health in New Zealand.

These poor conditions are more common in households which have fewer resources; disproportionately Maori and Pasifika families are found in those households.

More affluent households have enough basic resources to cover the child's wellbeing. Meanwhile one in five children in our country live in poverty and don't have enough to stop them from getting sick, often again and again.

The shock has never left me. Every time I treat a child with preventable disease, I compare them to my own. How come my child has been protected from this, not her child or his child?

We need a much more concerted effort from Government and related bodies to provide healthy housing to every person in the country. 

New Zealand Superannuation is such a success story for the health and wellbeing of the elderly. The same priority and cross-party agreement needs to be focussed on our children, addressing both inadequate incomes and inadequate housing.

Whenever a policy is mooted, the first question should be how will this affect children? More importantly, the most disadvantaged children in this country. What will this policy do to correct inequities that exist?

Everyone deserves a decent home, but right now the Government is paying lip service only to this ideal.

Innes Asher has worked as a paediatrician for more than thirty years. She never ceases to be shocked by the preventable disease that plagues Kiwi kids and the poor housing at its root.

What we need to happen:

UNICEF NZ is calling on the Government to:

1. Introduce and enforce a WOF for housing

2. Provide subsidies to get private housing rentals up to a healthy standard

3. Urgently review and update the Accommodation Supplement

Three ways you can help...

1. Writing a letter to the editor of your community or local newspaper

2. Writing to or meeting with your local MP to discuss the issue and gain support - emails can be sent directly.

3. Get talking, have conversations and discuss this serious issue with your neighbours, workplaces, clubs and other groups.