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Page last updated at 02:50 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 03:50 UK
Preventable child illness reaches 'epidemic' levels

By Richard Bilton
BBC Panorama

Three-year-old boy before tooth surgery
Dental extractions in young children often require a general anaesthetic

Preventable diseases in children are reaching epidemic proportions that could see a generation dying before their parents, doctors at a leading children's hospital have warned.

Alder Hey in Liverpool is the busiest children's hospital in Europe, treating more than 200,000 patients a year.

But staff say they are spending more and more time dealing with conditions that could have been avoided.

More than £1m and hundreds of hours of treatment time are being spent tackling conditions such as obesity, tooth decay, alcohol abuse and the problems caused by passive smoking.

Steve Ryan, medical director at Alder Hey, said preventable conditions are also diverting vital resources away from more serious illnesses.

'Upsets immensely'

"It just shouldn't be happening. These children should not be suffering from these problems and they should not be here at this hospital," Dr Ryan said. "People are starting to say maybe this is a generation where children will be dying before their parents."

One of the areas most affected by preventable conditions is the dental department.

More than half of the 1,000 dental operations carried out each year are on children under the age of six.

Dental surgeon Sharon Lee said she sees a constant stream of toddlers: "It obviously upsets me immensely but we do have a job to do to look after the child."

Five-year-old Kaitlyn was one of them.

Tooth decay meant that she needed to have eight molars removed - almost half her teeth.

Panorama: Spoilt Rotten? BBC One, Tuesday, 13 April at 2100BST
Or watch it later on the BBC iPlayer.

Because of her size and her age, Kaitlyn needed a general anaesthetic and required hospitalisation.

"It could have been sweet drinks, sweets, biscuits, anything. Just too much sugar in the diet," said dental surgeon Dr Rod Llewelyn of her rotting teeth.

He said having the teeth out so early will have an impact on how her permanent teeth grow in and is likely to result in more extractions to relieve crowding.

Her mother, Sharon, said the culprits were her daughter's love of sweets and tomato sauce. The little girl was at one point eating half a mug of tomato sauce a day.

But after the traumatic experience of seeing her daughter undergo the extractions, Sharon vowed to ban the ketchup entirely and cut back on the sweets served to her three children.

"It was sickening. I wouldn't expect any other parent to go through that. Under anaesthetic, anything can go wrong can't it? The lifestyles are going to change after this. Fizzy drinks are stopping. The lot."

Kaitlyn had eight teeth removed when she was five

Kaitlyn's mother said that in the months since her daughter had the operation last summer, she has required fillings in two baby teeth, but the family is making good progress in cutting down on the sweets and the tomato sauce.

Dr Ryan said these avoidable conditions are costing money that could be spent to do "amazing things".

"That's money that we could be using to do more heart surgery, to improve the care of patients with cancer and to deal with the things that are not preventable," he said.

Doctors at the hospital say basic health messages are still not being understood by parents.

Smoking dangers

Between 500 to 1,000 children a year end up in hospital because they are exposed to their parents' smoking.

Ten-year-old Marc has glue ear, a common childhood condition that affects his hearing and can require surgery to implant tiny tubes, or grommets into the ears. Alder Hey carried out 621 such operations last year.

But Marc's Dad is a smoker.

On a routine visit specialist nurse Alison Flynn warned Marc's mother that passive smoke can aggravate the condition and in some cases cause the grommets to loosen and come out.

"The passive smoking can affect his hearing. I can tell by his ears that the smoke has been affecting them a little bit. Perhaps you could tell dad?"

Marc said he was not confident that his father would heed the warning: "I've told him a million times but he didn't listen."

On a visit to meet Marc's father, we asked him why he was not following the medical advice.

He said that he was not convinced that smoking made any difference to his son: "The doctors are like the government. They tell you what to do, where to do it and how to do it. If they don't like something they say it's bad for you."

We've never faced this epidemic. There were cholera epidemics, measles epidemics, whooping cough epidemics…but this is subtle. It is in the background - but it's massive
Dr Steve Ryan, medical director at Alder Hey Children's Hospital

Since the BBC first met Marc and his family last summer, his father said he has cut down on the cigarettes and is chewing nicotine gum during the day.

Obesity is also putting a strain on resources, with admissions linked to obesity in both adults and children in England up from 5,056 in 2007-08 to 8,085 for 2008-09.

In Liverpool, the consultant who deals with children who are seriously obese is Mohammed Didi.

He said he is seeing heavier children at a younger age: "It is maybe to do with their diet. With parents working quite often, the amount of time they spend watching television, how much time they spend outside being physically active and the type of foods they eat."

He added that while he can give advice - it is what goes on at home that matters.

Reporter Richard Bilton
Reporter Richard Bilton spent several months meeting patients and doctors

Alder Hey's Steve Ryan admitted to his frustration at the situation: "I think what a terrible shame this is that we have to be doing these things that we shouldn't be doing.

"All the time we're under pressure to use taxpayers' money we receive in this hospital as effectively as possible, so it is awfully disappointing that that money's wasted. We could be using that money to do amazing things."

He said the very real prospect of a generation of British children dying before their parents is a sleeping giant.

"I think that we've never been here before. We've never faced this epidemic. It didn't happen in history. There were cholera epidemics, measles epidemics, whooping cough epidemics…(this) is subtle. It is in the background. But it's massive."

Panorama: Spoilt Rotten?, BBC One, Tuesday, 13 April at 2100BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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