Most New Zealand children and young people are healthy and grow up to become healthy adults. However, there are health imbalances within the child and youth population, primarily based on family socio-economic status and ethnicity.
For much of the 20th century New Zealand was proud of its child health record. Infant mortality, a major health indicator, was the lowest in the world in the early decades and the second-lowest in 1951. Improvements in living standards, smaller families, free and subsidised public health care, family income support and post-Second World War prosperity contributed to this record.
However, New Zealand slipped relative to other rich countries in the 1960s. In the 1970s New Zealand was still in the top third for most child health indicators, but had fallen within this group. By the early 2000s it had dropped to the bottom third. Various broad explanations have been offered, including poor parenting education and skills, fragmented health services, changing economic fortunes and reforms, income inequality, changes in welfare policy and internationally low government spending on children.
Government spending on children increases with age. A 2009 OECD report stated that in New Zealand in 2003, $21,000 was spent per child aged 0–5 years (OECD average $44,000), $49,000 per child aged 6–11 (OECD average $65,000) and $57,000 per child aged 12–17 (OECD average $75,000).
This does not always mean that the health of children got worse overall. Rates for different indicators improved, but to a lesser extent than in other countries, which caught up with and then surpassed New Zealand.
New Zealand did not fare well internationally in the 2000s. An OECD report published in 2009 on child health in the 30 OECD countries found that New Zealand had:
- the highest youth (15–19 years) suicide rate
- the second-lowest immunisation rate for measles and the fifth-lowest for whooping cough
- the 10th-highest infant (0–364 days) mortality rate
- the seventh-highest child (0–19 years) mortality rate.
Overall, New Zealand was ranked 29 out of 30 for child health and safety.
New Zealand’s youth suicide rate improved relative to other countries during the decade and was third highest in 2008.
Health researchers say that a cautionary approach should be taken when making international comparisons of suicide rates. The level of proof required to classify a death as suicide varies between countries. In New Zealand the investigation process is very thorough and the number of unclassified deaths is low. By comparison, there may be undercounting of suicides in other countries. The stigma attached to suicide may affect the way deaths are classified.
Death and hospitalisation rates
The causes of death for children and young people differ depending on age. In the 2000s cot death was the most common cause of death in post-neonatal babies (29–364 days). Injury and poisoning was the most common cause of death for children (1–14 years) and young people (15–24 years). The second most common cause of death for children was cancer and for young people, suicide.
Injury and poisoning combined were the most common cause of acute hospitalisation of both children and young people. Other significant causes for children were gastroenteritis and respiratory diseases, and for young people abdominal and pelvic pain and mental-health issues.