Story: Child and youth health

In the 20th century New Zealand children and young people were among the healthiest in the world. Most are healthy in the 2000s, and can expect to grow up to be healthy adults. But some are less lucky.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Leo Malaulau has his ears tested

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Children’s health

For much of the 20th century New Zealand led the world in child health. Infant mortality – a major health indicator – was the lowest in the world. But child and youth health in rich countries improved faster than in New Zealand, and in the early 2000s it had relatively high infant and child death rates and youth suicide rates compared to other OECD countries.

Children from the poorest families were much more likely to be hospitalised with diseases like rheumatic fever or bronchiectasis (a lung disease) than children from rich families. In 2006, 17% of children lived in crowded houses, and poor housing led to illnesses such as meningococcal disease. In the 2000s Māori and Pacific children had two to three times worse health than other ethnic groups.


Diseases such as polio and tuberculosis (TB) affected children till the mid-20th century, when vaccines were developed to prevent them. In 2010 children could be vaccinated for free to prevent 11 diseases, but the rate of vaccination was low compared to other OECD countries.

Child health issues

In the 1980s New Zealand’s rate of cot death (when a baby dies suddenly and there is no explanation why) was high. A study found that babies whose parents smoked, who were put to sleep on their fronts or who were not breastfed had a higher chance of cot death. The rate of cot deaths dropped from 4 per 1,000 births in 1986 to 0.8 per 1,000 births in 2006. The Māori rate was much higher – it also dropped, but in 2006 it was 1.6 per 1,000 births.

In 2006/7, 1 in 12 children was obese. This could lead to illnesses such as diabetes.

Around 25% of children had asthma in the 2000s, with much higher rates for Māori and Pacific children.

Youth health issues

Between 2003 and 2008, 44% of youth (15–24 years) deaths were caused by injuries, mostly car accidents. Young men were twice as likely as women to die from a car accident.

Men were more likely than women to die by suicide, though more women attempted suicide than men.

In 2001 New Zealand had the third-highest teenage birth rate out of 28 rich countries.

Most young people aged 12 to 17 had tried alcohol, and around half drank regularly in the 2000s. But the number of young people smoking dropped – in 2009, 10.9% of young people smoked, compared with 28.6% 10 years earlier.

Primary health

Plunket was set up in 1907 to help parents to care for their babies. It provides free health and welfare services for children aged 0–5.

Many schools have a school nurse. Doctors are subsidised to provide free care for children under six.

In 2010 there were seven health camps for children with social and emotional problems, or who had been abused.

There was only one stand-alone children’s hospital, Starship in Auckland. Other hospitals had children’s wards.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Child and youth health', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 September 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011