The changing face of childhood illnesses

Are common coughs and colds giving way to more serious medical issues in kids? Experts reveal what they are seeing.

When naturopath Fin Mackenzie started her practice more than 15 years ago, most children presented with illnesses that were “garden variety” for their time.

“Often parents would bring their children presenting with ear infection, persistent coughs and colds and eczema – pretty standard,” says Fin, a naturopathy lecturer at Endeavour College of Natural Health.

“But as the years passed, I noticed a change in my clientele. Suddenly I was regularly seeing kids with severe food allergies, anxiety, ADHD, learning difficulties and those on the spectrum disorder.”

Holistic paediatrician Dr Deb Levy has observed a similar pattern in her Sydney practice.

“I’m still seeing a wide variety of illnesses in my practice, but certainly more chronic and immune-related conditions than I did several years ago,” Dr Levy says.

“Looking at the statistics, my experience is very similar to what other physicians are seeing.”

What the stats show about modern childhood illness

For Fin and Dr Levy, children’s health issues are constantly evolving, but are we really seeing an increase in conditions such as allergies, anxiety and autism?

According to Murdoch Children’s Research Institute research, Australia has the highest published rates of food allergy in children (10 per cent in infants and 4 to 8 per cent in children). And there has been a two to three-fold increase in presentations to emergency departments due to anaphylaxis over the past two decades.

The federal government’s 2015 survey of mental health in children and adolescents found anxiety disorders were affecting 6.9 per cent of primary school students, with further research – again by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute – finding anxiety diagnoses made by paediatricians doubled in the five years from 2008 to 2015.

Meanwhile, Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) has revised its autism prevalence rates from one in 100 to an estimated one in 70 Australians – an estimated increase of 40 per cent.

The 2016 Census also revealed a 40,000 increase from 2011 in children with disabilities such as learning disorders.

Why are these diagnoses increasing?

Many experts link the increase in such illnesses to a combination of greater awareness and improved diagnostics.

But Dr Levy says it’s important to be aware of the shortfalls of epidemiological studies that look at the prevalence of a condition.

“This is especially true for conditions like autism that do not have a specific biological marker or diagnostic test, but rather rely on observational reporting,” she explains.

“This has led to many experts concluding that the magnitude of the rise in autism has been falsely reported.”

Fin isn’t so sure: “I see kids presenting with autism so severe that there’s no way it wouldn’t have been picked up in the past. And when we’re seeing one or two of these kids in each classroom, that’s a big jump not fully explained by diagnostics.”

The reasons behind other illnesses appear to be less ambiguous.

With anxiety, for example, many academics point at “catching it” from anxious helicopter parents who have over-scheduled them (one theory of many), while many immunologists stand behind the “hygiene hypothesis” (our immediate environments are too clean to help our bodies build and maintain immunity) when it comes to the rise we’re seeing in food allergies.

“Kids today aren’t getting their hands dirty but they’re also not eating all that well,” explains Fin.

Dr Levy recommends looking at the child as a whole within their environment.

“A child’s health is determined by the genes they’re born with as well as the food they’re fed and the environment in which they live,” she says.

What to do if you are worried

If you are concerned about any element of your child’s health, the first step is to talk to your GP.

Visiting a naturopath can also be beneficial if used in conjunction with mainstream medical care.

Written by Dilvin Yasa.