Neglected Healthcare Needs of Children with Developmental Disabilities Highlighted in New Report

A recently published report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, released today, brings attention to the global prevalence of developmental disabilities among children and young people. It highlights the urgent need for action to address disparities in their healthcare access, health outcomes, and exposure to social determinants like poverty.

According to the report, in 2019, an estimated 317 million children and young people were affected by health conditions contributing to developmental disabilities. Many of them face stigmatisation, bias, and social exclusion, along with barriers to healthcare access and lower-quality care compared to their peers, which, as an NDIS provider on the Gold Coast, is concerning to read.

Dr Luwei Pearson, Associate Director of Health at UNICEF, emphasised, “The vision of leaving no one behind can only be achieved if the aspirations and needs of children and young people with developmental disabilities are brought from the margins to the mainstream of our work in promoting the health and well-being of children all over the world.”

Dévora Kestel, Director for Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO, added, “From poorer health outcomes to social exclusion, children and young people with developmental disabilities experience vast disparities. By strengthening interventions to support children and young people with developmental disabilities within wider efforts to boost universal health coverage and promote inclusive nurturing environments, we can ensure they have access to the resources and services they need to live healthy lives.”

Underlying Health Conditions

Children and young people with developmental disabilities have underlying health conditions that affect the developing nervous system and result in impairments in motor skills, cognitive function, language, behaviour, and sensory functioning. These impairments, combined with various barriers and contextual factors, may hinder their full participation in society on an equal basis with their peers.

Underlying health conditions contributing to developmental disabilities include autism, intellectual developmental disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and various other neurodevelopmental disorders listed in the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11). This group also encompasses congenital conditions (e.g., Down syndrome) and conditions acquired at birth (e.g., cerebral palsy) or during childhood.

Evidence indicates that children with developmental disabilities experience ill health and a greater risk of premature mortality than their peers. Common, preventable causes of death in this group include epilepsy, choking, respiratory infections, and injuries. Health disparities continue into adulthood, increasing the risk of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, respiratory illnesses, and mental health disorders.

Barriers to Accessing Healthcare

Children and young people with developmental disabilities often face unmet healthcare needs due to fragmented and underfunded healthcare systems. They may experience undetected and untreated health issues due to delayed diagnoses, long waiting lists, and ineligibility for care services. Lack of information, stigma, and limited understanding of developmental disabilities also act as barriers to accessing healthcare.

Physical and attitudinal barriers, along with a lack of training, further contribute to inequitable healthcare for these children. Quality of care varies widely, with children with developmental disabilities experiencing more preventable harms and poorer care quality during hospital stays.

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