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Report links child health to family wealth

Dionne Walker

ATLANTA — Children in Georgia families living below the poverty line are almost five times more likely to suffer poor health than their wealthier counterparts — among the biggest income-based gaps in children’s health in the nation, according to a new report that found similar disparities across the South.

Georgia ranked 41st, near the bottom, with one of the highest gulfs between the health status of poor and well-off children in the nation. A handful of Southern states also filled out the bottom 10, among them Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, which had the highest gap in the nation.

Poor children there are more than six times as likely to have poor health as children in a family of four making at least $85,000 in 2006, according to “America’s Health Starts With Healthy Children: How Do States Compare?” released by the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last week.

The report also examined the relationship between infant mortality and the mother’s level of schooling.

Georgia tied with South Carolina at No. 46, with babies born to adult mothers with less than a high school diploma almost twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to babies whose mothers attended college.

Researchers used recent vital statistics records and results from a 2003 National Survey of Children’s Health to chart factors such as income, race and children’s physical well being, said lead author Susan Egerter, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“It’s really the first to look at parents’ income and education and rank the states according to how these factors impact kids,” Egerter said, explaining the report focused on childhood health as an important determinant of future adult health.

It’s commonly thought the poorer a family or individual is, the more likely they are to suffer from conditions such as obesity or low birth weight pregnancies.

Surprising, however, is that even kids in middle-income families show less ideal health than those in only slightly more wealthy homes, Egerter said.

“What we found nationally is that people in poor families are nearly five times as likely to be in less than optimal health, but even middle-income kids are nearly one and a half times less likely to be in optimal health,” she said.

Gaps were particularly strong in the Southeast, though Egerter said it’s unclear why.

Discrepancies are sharp between children of different races.

Some 41.3 percent of Latino children in Georgia suffer ill health — more than twice the rate for blacks, and more than four times that of whites.

“Children from different backgrounds in Georgia don’t have the same fair shot at growing up healthy,” explained George Rust, director of the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and co-chair of the Georgia Minority Health Advisory Council.

The economy, squeezing just about every aspect of most Americans’ lives, could widen the gap, he said.

“More individuals are likely to lose employer-based benefits,” he said.

Some states are working on health issues that tend to affect low-income families disproportionately.

Texas will use part of a $2 million grant to research the links between the WIC federal subsidized meal program and obesity, a leading health condition among impoverished families, said Camille Miller, head of the Texas Health Institute.

Mississippi health officials are testing a pilot program targeting the state’s high infant mortality rate. At 10.1 per 1,000 births last year, it was one of the highest in the nation.

State Health Officer Ed Thompson blames low birth weight. The new program identifies mothers who’ve previously delivered low birth weight babies and targets them for strengthened primary care between pregnancies.

“Say the woman has diabetes,” he said. “We identify that and bring it under control, so when she does again become pregnant, she enters that pregnancy in the best possible health.”

The state aims to reach the national infant mortality average, 6.5 deaths per 1,000 births to adult mothers.

Meeting that goal could’ve saved 180 babies in 2006.

“Those are people,” Thompson said. “That’s the gap we’re trying to close.”

(Associated Press)