Australia's children are on the whole very healthy, with families and the community playing an important role in their overall wellbeing, says an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report launched today by the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Kay Patterson.
The report, A picture of Australia's children, covers a holistic range of measures of health and wellbeing, including information on elements of family structure, education and early learning, socioeconomic status, social cohesion, health status and infant mortality.
AIHW report author Dr Indrani Pieris-Caldwell says that a combination of medical and social factors has contributed to the halving of the infant mortality rate over the last two decades, from 9.6 per 1,000 live births in 1983 to 4.8 per 1,000 in 2003. Similar improvements have occurred for children aged 1-14 years.
'The major contributing factors have been the declining rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) (84% decline between 1983 and 2003), and death rates from injury and poisoning (60% decline). Family and community-based structures and support have certainly played an important role in this, alongside medically-based interventions and advice.'
Dr Pieris-Caldwell said that while significant health and child development gains are a feature of the report, there are areas of concern for the future.
'Infants from the least advantaged socioeconomic areas are twice as likely to die before the age of 1 year as those from the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. And although the Indigenous infant mortality rate has declined over time, it is still 2.5 times that of other Australian children.'
In 1998, nearly 90% of families reported good to excellent family cohesion, as measured by family members' ability to get along with each other, said Dr Pieris-Caldwell.
'And over 90% of households with children said that they were able to get social support from family, relatives, friends neighbours and the community, including help in times of crisis.'
With respect to education, 92% of girls and 88% of boys met national benchmarks for reading, writing and numeracy in 2001. Rates for girls were consistently higher than for boys. Around 56% of 4-year-olds went to preschool.
'Not all children have equal access to preschool,' said Dr Pieris-Caldwell. 'Participation rates were higher in households with the highest incomes (66% compared to 49% of children in the lowest income households), and higher in major cities compared with very remote areas (58% compared to 43%).'
Financial stress was an issue among lone-parent family households: 'In 2002, 48% of lone-parent households with children reported that they would be unable to raise $2,000 within a week for something important, while only 15% of couple family households reported this.'
Dr Pieris-Caldwell also said that there was a lack of recent objective national data on children in key areas of concern such as overweight and obesity, nutrition, physical activity, and mental health.