By world standards, children and youth in economically developed societies tend, on average, to be remarkably healthy. Even so, much depends on precisely how well-off families are and on how much health care is available to them.
Children from higher-income families experience far fewer serious or life-threatening illnesses than children from lower-income families. Whatever their income level, parents and teachers often rightly note that children, especially the youngest ones, get far more illnesses than do adults.
Example, in 2004, an American government survey estimated that children get an average of 6-10 colds per year, but adults get only about 2-4 per year (National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, 2004).
The difference probably exists because children’s immune systems are not as fully formed as adults’, and because children at school are continually exposed to other children, many of whom may be contagious themselves. An indirect result of children’s frequent illnesses is that teachers also report more frequent minor illnesses than do adults in general—about five colds per year, for example, instead of just 2-4 (Whelen, et al., 2005).
The “simple” illnesses are not life threatening, but they are responsible for many lost days of school, both for students and for teachers, as well as days when a student may be present physically, but functions below par while simultaneously infecting classmates. In these ways, learning and teaching often suffer because health is suffering.
The problem is not only the prevalence of illness as such, but the fact that illnesses are not distributed uniformly among students, schools, or communities.
Whether it is a simple cold or something more serious, illness is particularly common where:
• Living conditions are crowded
• Health care is scarce or unaffordable
• Individuals live with frequent stresses of any kind
Often, but not always, these are the circumstances of poverty.
Table 2 summarises these effects for a variety of health problems, not just for colds or flu.
As students get older, illnesses become less frequent, but other health risks emerge. The most widespread is the consumption of alcohol and the smoking of cigarettes. As of 2004 in America, about 75 per cent of teenagers reported drinking an alcoholic beverage at least occasionally, and 22 per cent reported smoking cigarettes (Center for Disease Control, 2004a). The good news is that these proportions show a small, but steady decline in the frequencies over the past 10 years or so. The bad news is that teenagers also show increases in the abuse of some prescription drugs, such as inhalants, that act as stimulants (Johnston, et al., 2006).
As with the prevalence of illnesses, the prevalence of drug use is not uniform, with a relatively small fraction of individuals accounting for a disproportionate proportion of usage. One survey, for example, found that a teenager was 3-5 times more likely to smoke or to use alcohol, smoke marijuana, or use drugs if she has a sibling who has also indulged these habits (Fagan & Najman, 2005). Siblings, it seems, are more influential in this case than parents.
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