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U.S. Kids Get Mixed Health Checkup

Immunizations are up and the teen birthrate is down, a report says. But violent crime increases.

July 20, 2005|Brad Wible | Times Staff Writer

The teenage birthrate reached a record low, childhood immunization numbers rose and the mortality rate of kids ages 1 to 4 dropped, according to an annual report on the well-being of children to be released today.

But the good news was tempered by an increase in violent crime committed by -- and on -- children, a lack of progress in reducing underage alcohol use and an increase in childhood obesity.

The health of America's children earned a thumbs up on several key issues, said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, although he acknowledged the troubling trends.

The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, made up of more than 20 public and private research organizations, has reported its annual findings since 1997.

The group analyzed 25 major indicators of health, education, family, poverty, crime and substance use among the nation's 73 million children.

Alexander said the continuing drop in the teen birthrate was among the most significant findings.

The rate has dropped each year for the last six years.

In 2003, the latest year for which statistics are available, 22 out of 1,000 girls ages 15 to 17 gave birth, down from 23 out of 1,000 the previous year. In 1991, the rate was 39 girls out of 1,000.

"The implications are extremely broad and for a lifetime, for both the mother and the baby," Alexander said.

Immunization rates rose to 81% of infants -- the highest since the start of the report and up from 78% in 2002.

Among other improvements, blood tests showed that 59% of 4- to-11-year-olds were exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke in the late 1990s and early 2000s, down from 88% in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The improvements were countered by an increase in violent crime -- homicide, rape, assault and robbery -- involving children.

The report found 18 out of 1,000 juveniles were victimized in 2003, up from 10 out of 1,000 in 2002.

The rate of children committing violent crimes rose to 15 out of 1,000 juveniles in 2003 from 11 out of 1,000 youths in 2002.

"Because this is the first year that it has gone up since 1993, this could just be a blip," said statistician Katrina Baum of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rates of violent crime among youths have decreased by at least 60% since reaching a high point in 1993, when 52 out of 1,000 youths committed crimes and 44 per 1,000 were victims.

"It's something that bears watching, but we have nothing to clearly link it to," Alexander said of the figures.

The percentage of children living below the poverty level -- an annual income of $18,810 for a family of four -- increased to 18% in 2003, up from 17% the previous year.

The rate of obesity among children increased to 16%, up from 11% in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Black girls and Mexican American boys are most affected, with about a quarter of both groups being obese, the report said.

Drug, alcohol and tobacco use among children remained largely unchanged since the last report. Drug use among eighth-graders decreased, dropping from 10% to 8%.

Unchanged from 2003, about 30% of 12th-grade students reported having five or more drinks in a row in the last two weeks.

"Almost a third of our kids have been drunk in the past couple weeks," Alexander said.

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