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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 March 2008, 16:30 GMT
Health inequality gap 'widening'
Obese woman
Obesity is one of the factors which affects poorer women's health
Despite a pledge to cut the health gap between the richest and poorest, the difference in life expectancy is widening, a government report shows.

The aim is to reduce the differences in male and female life expectancy by 10% by 2010.

But the report shows the gap between those in the most deprived areas of England and the rest of the country is getting worse.

The government said inequalities were "difficult to change."

This report proves what we already know - health inequalities are difficult to change
Public health minister Dawn Primarolo
The report, the third annual analysis of the implementation of a 2003 strategy to tackle health inequalities, says there have been real improvements.

Life expectancy in the most deprived areas has increased by two and a half years for men and one and a half years for women over the last 10 years.

But the gap in life expectancy for women in the most deprived areas compared with the average was 2% wider in 2004-06 than in 1995-97.

And the gap for women is now 11% wider.

Infant mortality

The difference in the infant mortality rate has been falling in recent years after a 2002 high, it is still significantly higher than it was a decade ago.

For babies whose fathers have a "routine or manual occupation", the mortality rate in 2004-06 was 17% higher than that for the general population, compared to 13% in 1997-99.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo said: "This report proves what we already know - health inequalities are difficult to change.

"We've set ourselves an ambitious target and we're the only country in the world to have a plan to reduce health inequalities. We are determined to make a difference."

She said the 70 local authority areas with the highest level of deprivation now had "health trainers" to help people improve their health, and that there was action to tackle rates of obesity and smoking.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, who chaired the group which compiled the report, said: "While it is too early to see any short term impact on health inequalities, the report shows a very welcome improvement in life expectancy for all social groups, including disadvantaged groups.

"There are encouraging signs of a reduction in health inequalities in the two big killers of cancer and heart disease.

"Wider policy too makes a difference to health inequalities with over 600,000 children taken out of poverty over the last 10 years."

Professor Danny Dorling, an expert in human geography at Sheffield University, said the inequalities were now at "unprecedented levels".

"This is the first Labour or Liberal government to see this gap widen.

"I can see why the government thought that just giving it time and spending money on it would work.

"But it worries me that there will be more excuses rather than an admission of failure."

David Sinclair, head of policy at Help the Aged said poverty was a "central consideration".

He added: "It remains the case that those who are wealthier can afford to stay active and healthy, those in poverty cannot. "The whole government must continue to tackle poverty across all ages, and must work to support the development of communities which work for all their residents, in order to reduce the isolation and deprivation which leads to poor health."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said widening health inequalities were "Labour's most shameful NHS failure".

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