Published on Tue, 02/23/2010 by Public Health Agency of Canada

Children’s Health: an early investment with lifelong impacts

By Dr. David Butler-Jones MD, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada

As parents, we are inherently aware that our children’s early years are one of the greatest opportunities to influence positive, lifelong health outcomes. However, our children are facing a number of challenges very different than those that we faced during our childhood. Creating healthy and supportive environments at home, at school and in the community is a huge undertaking – one that doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of parents, but involves strong collaborative efforts across communities.

This past Fall, I released my Second Annual Report on the State of Public Health in Canada, entitled “Growing Up Well – Priorities for a Healthy Future”, which looks at the current health challenges facing Canadian children. I strongly believe there is no better investment worth making than in our children. In fact, for every dollar we invest in the early years, we save between three and nine dollars later on in reduced social assistance and health and justice systems.

Fortunately, the majority of Canadian children today are healthy. They live, learn and grow in healthy and supportive environments with life expectancies and potential years in good health that are among the highest in the world. While this is the result of consistent efforts over many decades to improve children’s health and wellbeing, there is still more we can and must do.

Not all Canadian children have shared in this progress. Certain areas of concern are emerging that may prevent children from achieving positive long-term health outcomes. These areas include socio-economic status and developmental opportunities; abuse and neglect; prenatal risks; mental health and disorders; obesity; and unintentional injuries. If left unaddressed, worrying trends in these areas will negatively impact the health of Canadian children, now and as they age.

Evidence shows that early positive influences and interventions can have a profound impact on the life of a child. Optimal conditions for childhood health and development include:

• strong, healthy and sustainable communities;
• access to high-quality early learning and education and primary health care;
• caring and safe environments in the home, school and community;
• the ability to develop a sense of control, connectedness and responsibility; and
• opportunities to make healthy choices.

The good news is that there is significant work already being done to address negative trends. From immunization programs to prenatal care to Health care, long-term planning and investment have made a remarkable difference in the health of individuals and to society, and show that we have the capacity to invoke real and positive change. There are many successful and promising interventions and initiatives being put in place across Canada, and around the world. One example would be community-based child health programs, such as the Community Action Program for Children, the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program and Aboriginal Head Start, which increase access to health services among families who may be experiencing challenging life circumstances including but not limited to recent immigration to Canada, poverty, and lone or young parenthood. Information on these programs can be found on the Public Healthy Agency of Canada website (http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hp-ps/index-eng.php).

There remains more that Canada can and must do to strengthen the health and well-being of all Canadian children, especially those most vulnerable. There are 4.3 million children in Canada who are aged 12 and under and as individuals and as a society, Canadians must assume collective responsibility for the health and well-being of each and every one of them. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a caregiver, a health professional, a decision-maker or a citizen, we all have a stake in making the early years of childhood the best they can be. There is no better investment worth making.

To read my full annual report, or the Report-at-a-Glance, please visit www.publichealth.gc.ca/CPHOreport.

Dr. David Butler-Jones is Canada's first Chief Public Health Officer and is head of the Public Health Agency of Canada.