The number of children with conditions such as muscular dystrophy, neurodegenerative disorders or severe cerebral palsy who are surviving into adulthood has been underestimated, a new study shows.
Research led from the University of Leeds, has shown that the number of children and young adults in England with a 'life limiting condition' is far higher than had previously been thought and is increasing year on year. As numbers continue to rise, this will place a growing burden on paediatric palliative care providers and young adult services, particularly in deprived areas.
The study, which is published in the journal Pediatrics, was a collaboration between the University of Leeds, Martin House Children's Hospice in Yorkshire, and the Children's Hospital, Cardiff. It was funded by the charity Together for Short Lives.
Experts agree that children who are born with or contract an illness that can shorten their life, and who may not reach adulthood, should have access to specialist palliative care. This can make an enormous difference to the quality of their life and to that of their family members.
Data on the use of children's hospice services is collected by Together for Short Lives. However, the total number of children who have received any form of specialist palliative care - or who might need it in the future - is not recorded nationally and local data is patchy. This has prompted concerns that health authorities may be underestimating the level of provision that is needed, leaving existing services under-resourced and overstretched.
To address this gap in knowledge, researchers took NHS data on children's admissions to hospitals in England from 2000 until 2010 and used an internationally recognised coding method to classify the medical conditions being treated. They found that for 2010, the prevalence of life limiting conditions in under-19s was 32 in 10,000 - exactly double the figure previously reported. From this, they estimate that there are about 40,000 children in England who are currently living with a life limiting condition.
The results showed a steady increase in the number of children living with a life limiting condition, particularly in the 16-19 age group. This suggests that the growing need for support associated with these conditions is being driven by longer survival times rather than a rise in the incidence of disease. The prevalence of life limiting conditions was also notably higher in some ethnic minority populations and areas of socio-economic deprivation.
University of Leeds researcher Dr Lorna Fraser, who led the study, said: "Children and teenagers with life limiting medical conditions will often need many years of specialist palliative care before they reach the end of their life, making it all the more important that their needs are not overlooked. Our study has confirmed doctors' suspicions and identified an escalating need for specialist paediatric care services. It is vital that health authorities now take this message on board and plan accordingly."