Hobson Article - October 2016

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Watching wave after wave of predominantly skinny kids charging about the field at Remuera Primary’s ‘run-swim-run’ last summer, I was struck by the irony that, in the developed world at least, obesity is relatively rare in wealthier communities and increasingly prevalent in poorer communities.

The reasons for this are complex, but choices around food and drink, lifestyle and activity obviously have a significant bearing.  We all know that some of the easiest to get and cheapest food and drink available can be the most heavily laden with sugar and fat.

It is concerning that New Zealand has the third highest rate of adult obesity among OECD countries. In 2014/15 11 per cent of all children aged 2-14 years were categorised as obese. The figures for Maori and Pacific children are 15 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. We all want to reduce those rates.

Our Government hasn’t favoured heavy-handed rules and taxes to bring about change, because we think that Kiwis should be free to make choices and take responsibility for those choices.

But we do have a well-thought-through Child Obesity Plan. Its focus is on children as that’s where the evidence shows we can make a considerable difference.

As young people spend approximately a third of their waking hours during the school term at school, schools have an important role to play in influencing their physical activity and food choices. The new child obesity health target is called the Raising Healthy Kids target, which started 1 July. The target has been introduced to bring a clinical focus to childhood obesity and is a starting point while the health system respond and focuses its work in this area.

Under the new target, where a child is identified as not being the optimum weight, the health professional will offer the caregiver a referral for the child to a registered health professional in a primary care or community setting. This will ensure robust clinical assessment occurs, followed by advice on nutrition, activity and lifestyle.  It will provide continuity of care for the child across their lifespan.

Our target by December 2017 is for 95 per cent of children identified as obese to be referred on for support into a healthy weight. That’s around 4,000 children a year.

There is also the B4 School Check, a free health and development check for four year olds. The checks aim to identify and address any health, behavioural, social or development concerns which could affect a child’s ability to get the most benefit from school. Over 58,600 children have benefited from this free service in the past year.  Of that, over 1,400 were referred on to services they and their family need to support healthy eating and activity. Politicians and health professionals have been talking for decades about re-balancing our investment in health away from simply treating problems to also including real efforts to prevent ill-health.  I’m pleased that this Government has been serious about doing just that, as we already have with a massive increase in vaccination rates and efforts to reduce smoking.

My hope is that the waves of predominately skinny kids charging about fields will remain a common sight at all schools in years to come.