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Study: Children in the South Face Higher Health Risks

Study: Children in the South Face Higher Health Risks

Children living in the South are up to three times more likely to battle poor health and its consequences than those in all other regions of the United States, even if they receive the same medical care, a new University of Florida study reveals.

“Hurricane Katrina gave the world a glimpse of the disparities in the South,” says Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of community pediatrics at Florida’s College of Medicine. “Our research documents just how profoundly these disparities impact the health of children in the region.”

The study, published recently in the journal Pediatrics, is the first to statistically relate region of residence to measures of child health, Goldhagen says.

“In fact, we now believe that where a child lives may be one of the most powerful predictors of child health outcomes and disparities,” he says.
Among the health concerns documented in the study were obesity, mental illness, asthma, tooth decay and death.

The eight-member research team set out to determine whether living in the South has a negative effect on children’s health and whether a scientific approach could identify which states in the South have poorer health outcomes for children. UF researchers also sought to identify what factors specific to the South led to the poor health outcomes.

To find out, researchers computed a Child Health Index that ranked each state in the nation according to five indicators of physical health in children — percentage of low-birth weight infants, infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen death rate and teen birth rates. The scores revealed that the “Deep South” accounts for eight of the 10 states with the poorest child health outcomes in the nation — Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The remaining Deep South states — Kentucky and Florida — are in the lowest quarter.

According to the study, living in the Deep South is the most consistent predictor of poor child health outcomes. The geographic disparity outranks all other common indicators, including poverty, parents’ employment status or single-parent households.

“We weren’t really surprised by the results because I think most people thought this might be the case,” says study co-author Dr. William Livingood, a UF associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Duval County Health Department’s Institute for Health, Policy and Evaluation Research. “But we were able to apply epidemiological principles to assess, clarify and map the problem and then document this intuitive feeling by making it scientific and evidence-based — much like the first epidemiologists in London who recognized, mapped and then defined the cholera problem.”

Researchers warn that the study evaluated children as a group, so the findings don’t apply to any single child’s risk. And overall, most American kids are quite healthy.

Other researchers say the findings are valuable and demand additional research.

“This paper presents important disturbing information, and adds unique information to our vast literature demonstrating shameful disparities in our children’s health,” says Dr. Michael Weitzman, chairman of pediatrics at New York University’s School of Medicine. “Why there are disparities and what to do about them are our society’s responsibility to our children.”

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