Kids by the Numbers

Posted March 15, 2009, at 8:58 p.m.

Lawmakers in Augusta are in the midst of cutting state spending and deciding where to allocate the federal stimulus money that will come to Maine. An annual report released last week by the Maine Children’s Alliance can guide this work.

This year’s Kids Count report was a mix of good and bad news, which shows where past investment has made a difference and were future funding could help.

Areas of improvement include teen use of alcohol and cigarettes, suicides and sexually transmitted diseases. Alcohol use among high school students dropped from more than 52 percent in 1995 to 39 percent in 2007, the last year for which figures are available. In 1995, nearly 38 percent of high school students reported using cigarettes; in 2007, 14 percent did. Although all of this drop can’t be attributed to education efforts, they clearly have helped reduce a deadly and costly habit, improving the health of Maine teens and young adults, which will lower health care costs.

The teen suicide rate declined from a high of 7.4 per 100,000 in 1999 to 4.6 in 2004, the first time it was below the national rate in nearly a decade.

While preventing suicide is critical, the leading cause of death for teens, by far, is motor vehicle accidents. Although teen motor vehicle deaths dropped from 30 in 2000 to 26 in 2004, these deaths nearly outnumber teen deaths from all other causes combined.

Another area that calls out for attention is the state’s immunization rates, which are declining, putting children and adults at risk from dangerous but preventable illnesses. Immunization rates for children age 19 to 35 months dropped to 73 percent, well below the national average of 77 percent. Dora Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, blames the decline on economics — the state doesn’t have funds to pay for vaccines for all children — and concerns about the side effects of vaccinations, although studies have shown there is no link between vaccinations and autism.

The consequences can be severe. A 3-year-old from the midcoast area is recovering from a serious case of meningitis and blood infection caused by the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type B, or Hib. According to a health alert issued earlier this month by the Maine CDC, the child had not undergone the full four-injection series of Hib vaccines recommended by the federal CDC and became ill in late February. Although the child is back at home after a long hospitalization, a full recovery is not certain, according to Dr. Mills.

A larger and pervasive problem identified by the Kids Count report is the percentage of Maine children living in poverty. The percentage of children under 5 living in poverty increased from 20 percent in 2005 to 21 percent in 2006. Poverty is a large determinant of success later in life, so reducing this percentage is crucial.

At a time of difficult budget decisions, the information in this report is valuable to help guide policy decision.

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