An increasingly high rate of “new childhood epidemics” are causing families, schoolteachers and administrators to be overwhelmed by children’s severe emotional and medical problems. These epidemics are primarily made up of the 4-A Disorders, which includes asthma, allergies, autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but the epidemic is also comprised of a wide array of other illnesses that have seen drastic increases in detection among children.
Medicine practitioners argue that children are being overrun by a storm of environmental toxins, stressors and infectious agents that dysregulate the children’s immune, neuroendocrine and gastrointestinal systems, resulting in a heightened rate of diagnoses.
The Human Rights Institute Lunchtime Seminar Series entitled “New Childhood Epidemics and Children Rights to a Healthy Development” focused on this issue and featured Maria LaRusso, an assistant professor in human development and family studies, and César Abadía-Barrero, an associate professor in anthropology and human rights, to share their own perspective on this current health crisis.
Mental health also plays a critical role in this crisis and has seen a sharp increase in prevalence over the past few decades.
“Probably the increase that most people seem to be aware of is around mental health issues,” LaRusso said. “Several authorities have called it a mental health crisis among children.”
According to a 2018 study conducted by Pew Research Center, 70% of teens reported anxiety and depression to be a major problem among their peers.
The rise of anxiety and depression among America’s youth is a problem affecting all demographic groups, with low-income teenagers facing some of the highest levels of anxiety due to worries about whether they will be able to afford college and other income-dependent situations.
There are many theories as to what is happening to children to cause the growing number of epidemics. Abadía-Barrero shared that researchers tend to focus on one specific theory, but he stresses the importance of combining the emotional, physical, educational, behavioral, environmental and biological domains of a child’s life to gain a more holistic view.
To take a deeper look into this phenomena, LaRusso and Abadía-Barrero were awarded a seed grant from the Center for the Study of Culture, Health and Human Development (CHHD) to investigate a chronic childhood illness called PANS (Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome).
PANS is a rare illness that is estimated to affect one in 200 children. It causes a rapid and alarming cascade of symptoms that can range from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to motor abnormalities.
“You also see deterioration in various academic skills,” LaRusso said. “Handwriting changes is a telltale sign for PANS. It’s not something you see with many other conditions.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has refused to address PANS as a legitimate medical condition, which has led patients to struggle while trying to receive a proper diagnosis and medical care. Researchers like LaRusso and Abadía-Barrero are leading the fight to legitimize PANS and help take the burden off of families with children suffering from the illness.
“The lack of access to care can reinforce existing inequalities in child health and development,” LaRusso said.
“The lack of access to care can reinforce existing inequalities in child health and development.”
Often times, the lack of federal funding available for such projects can significantly inhibit the amount of progress that can be made. As childhood epidemics continue to rise, major structural and systemic changes need to be made in order to properly deal with the underlying issues regarding children’s health.
“Healthcare institutions are not adapting and coming up to speed to deal with the new childhood epidemics,” LaRusso said. “We really need the medical community to make some kind of changes quickly.”