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Mixed Report on Well-being of U.S. Kids

U.S. Government Finds Slight Decline in Preterm Births; Illegal Drug Use Stays Steady

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

July 10, 2009 -- A new government report on children's well-being shows progress in some areas and little change in others.

The annual report looks at trends across a range of issues affecting children and teens, including preterm births, exposure to tobacco, and drug use.

After decades of steady increases, preterm and low-birth-weight deliveries declined slightly in the U.S. in 2007, but it is not yet clear if the downturn represents a trend, government health officials say.

Preterm births accounted for 12.7% of all deliveries, down from 12.8% the previous year. And 8.2% of babies born in 2007 were low-birth-weight, compared to 8.3% in 2006.

The statistics come from a new U.S. government report called "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2009."

Duane Alexander, MD, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told reporters on Thursday that the slight decline in preterm and low-birth-weight deliveries is welcome news. "Unfortunately, at this point we don't know if the decreases are the beginning of a trend or just a minor fluctuation."

Tobacco Exposure Way Down

The report presented a clearer picture of progress made in another key area involving the health of children and teens -- exposure to tobacco.

The latest government statistics revealed that:

  • The percentage of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students who reported smoking cigarettes daily in 2008 was a third to half that reported in the peak smoking years of 1996 and 1997.
  • 3% of eighth-graders identified themselves as daily smokers, compared to 6% of 10th-graders, and 12% and 11%, respectively, of male and female 12th-graders.
  • The percentage of young children under the age of 6 living with a smoker dropped from 27% in 1994 to 8% in 2005.

"We don't often see drops as large as that," National Center for Health Statistics Director Edward Sondik, PhD, said. "The harmful effects of secondhand smoke are well documented, so this is certainly a significant step toward healthier living conditions for American families."

Heavy drinking among teens has also dropped significantly.

In 1998, about a third of high school seniors identified themselves as heavy drinkers, while one in four high school seniors reported being heavy drinkers in 2008.

Heavy drinking was defined as drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in a row or during a single occasion over the previous two weeks.

The percentage of white and Hispanic 10th- and 12th-graders who reported being heavy drinkers was twice that of African-American 10th- and12th-graders.

Sex and Drug Use Stable

The incidence of illegal drug use did not change between 2007 and 2008 among teens, but reported drug use has declined significantly from the peak years of 1996 and 1997.

In 2008, 8% of eighth-graders, 16% of 10th-graders, and 22% of 12th-graders reported use of illegal drugs during the past month, compared to 15%, 23% and 26%, respectively, in these peak years.

The number of teens who report being sexually active has also not changed much in recent years.

During the 1990s, the percentage of teens reporting ever having had sex dropped dramatically from 54% in 1991 to 46% in 2001, but the number has remained relatively stable ever since.

The report revealed that:

  • In 2007, 33% of ninth-graders and 65% of 12th-graders reported that they had ever had sexual intercourse.
  • Overall, boys reported having had sex at the same rate as girls, but there were gender differences within ethnic groups. In 2007, 73% of African-American male teens reported having had sex, compared with 61% of African-American females; and 58% of Hispanic male teens reported that they had had sex, compared with 46% of Hispanic females.
  • In 2007, 62% of students who said they were sexually active over the past three months reported that they or their partner used condoms, up from 46% in 1991. Sixteen percent reported using birth control pills, down from 21% in 1991.

Kids With Medical Needs

A special section of the report was devoted to children with ongoing medical needs.

Overall, roughly 14% of children in the U.S. have been identified as having a chronic health condition that requires services that are beyond those needed by children in general.

Among these children, 53% had allergies, 39% had asthma, 30% had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 21% had depression or other emotional problems, and 15% had migraines or frequent headaches.

SOURCES: "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2009," U.S. government report, July 10, 2009. Duane Alexander, MD, director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Edward J. Sondik, PhD, director, National Center for Health Statistics, CDC.

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