By Professor Keith Godfrey
Politicians from all parties now appreciate that disparities in society cannot be ignored, with equality, diversity and inclusivity being of pivotal importance. Data from the National Child Measurement Programme, however, show progressive, and ongoing, widening of disparities in childhood obesity over the last 15 years. This is of serious concern. It is a sign that policy initiatives are making little headway in tackling structural inequalities, but itself has important implications for individuals as childhood obesity can have wide health, wellbeing and educational implications.
Southampton research has pioneered the concept that preconception influences can have a lasting biological effect on the risk of childhood obesity, alongside consequences for mental health and a child’s ability to learn. Crucially, the biological effects on the offspring are seen for the preconception health behaviours of both fathers and mothers. Indeed, we have recently secured an Alzheimer’s Research UK grant with the University of Lancaster to follow up observations implicating paternal obesity in the causation of Alzheimer’s disease in later life.
While research continues to gain further information on the critical preconception health behaviours and exposures, there is clear evidence that policy actions should now be taken forward to reduce the transmission of disparities across generations. Our University of Southampton researchers are taking a central role in working with policymakers in this area.
Recent weeks have seen the publication of a key report by the Children’s Alliance, supported by the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, calling for preconception care to be is available to all people in the UK and prioritised in policy content across every Government Department. The report included a five-point action plan for government and health officials to improve the health of future parents:
- Make preconception care services available to everyone in the UK
- Incentivise GPs, maternity services and family hubs to normalise preconception care – to improve pregnancy and post-natal care
- Add preconception health to the curriculum to teach pupils the importance of healthy pregnancies, as pioneered by our LifeLab programme
- Move preconception healthcare into related health policies that address obesity and weight management, alcohol and smoking
- Encourage large organisations – including the NHS – to give staff access to health and wellbeing professionals before conception.
With support from the University’s excellent Public Policy Southampton team, potential policy actions for preconception care have been submitted to the Health Select Committee’s “Prevention” inquiry, and we have presented to the Department of Health and Social Care Maternity Disparities Taskforce, led by Maria Caulfield MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Women) and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Mental Health and Women’s Health Strategy). Officials have been tasked with collating practical steps for urgent policy actions, to be discussed at a further Taskforce meeting over the next few weeks. The topic was discussed as part of last week’s Academy of Medical Sciences roundtable on child health with high level advisers from England and the devolved nations. There is wide backing for action from statutory and voluntary organisations, alongside cross-party support for the area to be taken seriously as a special opportunity to reduce transmission of disparities from the current generation to the next.
Action to reduce disparities among children and young people is crucial to the future of our economy and our society – children and young people represent 20% of the population but 100% of our future – their views need to be listened to and a truly transdisciplinary approach is needed to prioritise preparation for pregnancy and parenthood.