Category Archives: Sociology

Social determinants of health

David Gordon of International Poverty Research centre at Bristol has parody of Chief Medical Officer’s top ten tips for health – Number 1 is “don’t be poor”.

1Don’t smoke. If you can, stop. If you can’t, cut down.Don’t be poor. If you are poor, try not to be poor for too long.
2Follow a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.Don’t live in a deprived area. If you do, move.
3Keep physically activeDon’t be disabled or have a disabled child.
4Manage stress by, for example, talking things through and making time to relax.Don’t work in a stressful low-paid manual job.
5If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.Don’t live in damp, low quality housing or be homeless.
6Cover up in the sun, and protect children from sunburn.Be able to afford to pay for social activities and annual holidays.
7Practise safer sex.Don’t be a lone parent.
8Take up cancer screening opportunities.Claim all benefits to which you are entitled.
9Be safe on the roads: follow the Highway Code.Be able to afford to own a car.
10Learn the First Aid ABC: airways, breathing and circulation.Use education as an opportunity to improve your socio-economic position.


Still routine practice in many parts of the world, including the USA. Last figures I can find suggest 56% of US boys circumcised, with higher rates among non-Hispanic white boys, which is down from previous decades.

The Royal Dutch Medical Association declared in 2010 that male circumcision as routine practice or for religious reasons is medically unjustified and therefore an abuse of the rights of the child.

In 2013 the Children’s ombudsmen of the Nordic countries proposed a ban. In Sweden it is illegal in the first 2 months of life, following a death from complications in 2001 (an attempt at an outright ban was watered down).

In the UK there have been legal cases where parents have disagreed on their son having the procedure.

Trials in Africa suggested that circumcision might help prevent spread of HIV (38-66% reduced risk). South African president Jacob Zuma made a point of getting circumcised, to encourage others.

Risks are low in neonates cf adults.

Muslim and Jewish cultures see it as part of cultural identity, of course.

Adverse Childhood Experience

Associated with range of negative outcomes.

Later lifestyle

Adverse childhood experiences increase probability of smoking in adulthood. Physical harm in Eastern European countries increases the probability of heavy drinking by about 3.4%, but not in other regions. Exposure to child neglect (little understanding) increases the probability of alcohol abuse by 2.7% in Nordic Countries but not other macro-regions. The experience of a poor relationship with parents is a strong predictor of alcohol abuse for the female subsample in Latin countries (2% higher).

While ACE does not appear to have a substantial effect on excess weight in any macro-region, childhood trauma (physical harm) appears to have a major impact on the likelihood of being obese later in life. Obesity has a more obvious impact on chronic illness than poverty, smoking or alcohol.

Screen time

Sedentary time spent in front of screens programs metabolism and brain neurochem.  Similar to addiction.

But it’s complicated! Partly because there are so many different kinds of activity that can now be done with mobile phones and tablets, and because it’s difficult to control or randomize.

How people interact with screens is changing too. In the mid-2000s in the US, children over 8 spent an average of 6.43 hours a day on electronic media, but this was mainly watching TV.  Evidence of stress response (reduced cortisol increase) on waking after using screens for average 3 hours a day.

But now mobile devices are the centre piece of young people’s social lives.  Boys tend to spend more time gaming, girls more time on social networking.

Effect of high levels of screen time does not seem to be attenuated by equivalent exercise.

High levels of screen time (over 4 hours daily) is associated with poorer school performance. Social skills are poorer. These children tend to form cliques with shared interest, that create further social isolation.

Violent games and media are associated with aggression in children as young as pre-school. Aggression in children can be manifest physically, or verbally, or relationally (ignoring, excluding, spreading rumours). There is also significantly more hostile attribution bias, where you interpret behaviour (such as not being invited to a party) as hostile, even when it is not, or at least ambiguous.

Parental involvement matters – how frequently parents watch TV with their children, discuss content with them, and set limits on time spent playing video games.

Exposure to media violence must also be seen within a risks/resilience approach. [Gentile and Coyne, Aggressive Behaviour 2010] ]

Some evidence that some “social” games themed around cooperation and construction eg Animal crossing have benefits. Similarly, links between media and relational violence pretty weak, but that could be because relational violence content isn’t really examined! Actual content probably more important than time spent playing. Note that in that study of Animal Crossing, background mental health problems seemed to reduce benefit.

Growth Faltering and Failure to Thrive

Infants are at high risk of undernutrition – high requirements for growth, frequent infections affecting appetite and increasing requirements, inefficient metabolism, dependence on adults for food!

Faltering on growth chart

There are various ways of defining or looking for undernutrition:

  • Wasting – ie low BMI or weight for height.  Pushed by WHO as way of identifying most vulnerable, but in affluent societies seems to mostly identify tall children
  • Stunting – low height for age, indicating chronic poor growth.  But in affluent societies, more likely to be constitutional or organic disease?  Social gradients in height in UK persisted until 1990s, but socially deprived short children had shorter parents and were smaller at birth, so not all nutritional.
  • Low weight centile – usually just selects out low birth weight babies.
  • Falling through weight centiles (“growth faltering”) selects for relatively large infants regressing to mean.

“Failure to thrive” has gone out of fashion.  “Thrive” seems to suggest something more than growth, but really we are just talking weight and height.  “Failure” suggests not only that there is a definite problem, but also that it’s somebody’s fault! Variability in definition and use.

The main issue here is poor sensitivity and specificity for a genuine problem.  27% of Danish cohort infants met one or more of 7 different growth criteria in at least one of the two age groups (2–6 and 6–11 months of life). The concurrence among the criteria was generally poor, with most children identified by only one criterion. Positive predictive values of different criteria ranged from 1% to 58%. Most single criteria identified either less than half the cases of significant undernutrition (found in 3%) or included far too many, thus having a low positive predictive value. [Olsen, Arch Dis Child 2007;92:109-114 doi:10.1136/adc.2005.080333 ]

Things get even less consistent in older kids, where you can have low fat but apparently normal growth except at the extreme end of range.

Combination of weight faltering and low BMI is perhaps best.  These kids subsequently have growth and body composition patterns suggestive of previous undernutrition.  Overall, about 2/3 of kids with either weight faltering or low BMI probably adequate nutrition but variant growth pattern.  Weight faltering kids are relatively short at follow up, but not more so than parents, so probably “catching down”. [Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 71(4):545-55, 2012 Nov. PMID: 22954067]



Undernutrition is NOT associated with deprivation in UK, presumably as welfare focuses on families with young children. In the Gateshead Millennium Baby Study, both the highest and the lowest levels of deprivation were associated with weight faltering; this was independent of the type of milk feeding. No relation was found with maternal educational status.

Thrive index by deprivation quintile, under 6 weeks and up to 1 yr

Abuse and neglect are a factor in only a minority of cases.

Some evidence of differences in maternal feeding behaviour and appetite, eating behaviour. In Gateshead study maternal eating restraint (“I need to control how much I eat”) was unrelated to weight gain.  Response to food refusal seems important.

In Gateshead study, infants of mothers with high depression symptom scores (EPDS >12) had significantly slower weight gain and increased rates of weight faltering up to 4 months (relative risk 2.5), especially if they came from deprived families, but by 12 months they were no different from the remainder of the cohort. [Arch Dis Child 2006;91:312-317 doi:10.1136/adc.2005.077750]

Either low appetite or actually not undernourished in strict sense!

Fussy eating

Being faddy was only weakly associated with poor growth, and simply eating a limited variety was unrelated to growth [cf high eating restriction scores]. High milk consumption was associated with lower appetite but not with poor growth.[ Pediatrics. 120(4):e1069-75, 2007 Oct. UI: 17908727]

See Fussy eating


In Newcastle, There was a significant positive relationship between weight gain in infancy and picture vocabulary at age 10, adjusted for economic deprivation, gestational age and birthweight, but not with any of the other outcomes. There was a statistically significant association between birthweight and all four outcomes, where best outcome is at or just above average birthweight. In this population, the association between early growth and cognitive outcomes is stronger for growth before birth, postnatal weight gain having a relatively minor impact.[ Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2007 Jan;21(1):57-64.]


Being able to see what happens in the house at mealtimes is the most useful thing! Interventions that include home visits work best.  So Health Visitor is key.

Speech and Language, Dietician advice may be appropriate in some cases.

Identifying children with underlying medical problem important, even if these are a minority.  Similarly those with social concerns. But proportionate response to symptoms and signs important, rather than long lists of investigations.

Although tempting, high energy oral supplements eg Pedisure suppress appetite for normal food.  In series of 48 kids referred to a tertiary feeding clinic who were taking predominantly supplements (half neurodevelopmentally abnormal), most were successfully weaned off and had improved feeding behaviour a year later.  Average weight Z score unchanged, 17% had significant catch up growth. [Archives of Disease in Childhood. 100(11):1024-7, 2015 Nov. UI: 25809349]


Non-accidental injury – fractures

Abuse should be considered if:

  • multiple fractures
  • rib fractures (7 in 10 NAI)
  • femoral fracture (see below)
  • Under 3 with humeral fracture (1 in 2 NAI)
  • Mid shaft humeral fracture more frequently NAI, supracondylar less frequently
  • Infant/toddler skull fracture (1 in 3 NAI).  Type and location not helpful

Formerly known as CORE Info, the RCPCH Child Protection Portal hosted on the RCPCH website provides evidence-based guidance for health professionals concerned about non-accidental injury 

  • Fractures in the abuse group occurred predominantly in children less than 1 year of age.
  • Femoral fractures under 1 year of age are significantly associated with abuse.
  • One-third of isolated femoral fractures under 3 years of age were abusive.
  • Abusive femoral fractures occur predominantly in infants (evidence level IIb) [3].
  • Significantly more abusive femoral fractures arise in children who are not yet walking (evidence level IIb) [3].
  • Mid-shaft fractures are the most common fracture in both abuse and non-abuse groups (analysed for all age groups) (evidence level IIa) [3].
  • Under 15 months of age, a spiral fracture is the most common type of abusive femoral fracture p=0.05 (evidence level IIb) 

2014 Systematic review on bites has been withdrawn pending new review – interim advice on RCPCH child protection portal but need to be member.

Rib fractures with callus are at least 2 weeks old.  Other than that, unable to date.

Systematic reviews of various NAI issues at

Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI)

Or Cot death?  Or SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome)?

It is well recognised that some babies go to sleep apparently healthy, and then don’t wake up in the morning.  Even after a full post mortem (PM) investigation, no cause is found.  This unexplained phenomenon however has some very well recognised features eg age 2-6 months, prematurity, maternal smoking, poor socio-economic conditions, prone sleeping.

SUDI was originally defined by CESDI (Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Deaths in Infancy) as death between 7 and 365 days where unexpected and unexplained at autopsy, during an acute illness that was not recognised as life-threatening, due to an acute illness of less than 24 h duration in a previously healthy infant (or death after this if life had only been prolonged by intensive medical care); definition also includes deaths from a pre-existing occult condition, and deaths from any form of accident, trauma or poisoning.

I find SUDI most useful for describing the initial situation one may find oneself in, particularly from the point of view of bereavement, need for medical and police investigation.  Interestingly, many of the same risk factors pertain to both deaths unexplained (ie SIDS, or strict SUDI) and to accidental deaths (with the exception of prone sleeping).

SIDS is the ICD recognized term, so is what is generally put on a death certificate.  However pathologists vary in their use of the terminology, some will use “Unascertained” to mean SIDS, others will use SIDS but reserve Unascertained for cases where there are additional factors that somehow cast doubt on the diagnosis.

Similarly, overlying (smothering) as a cause of SUDI is often inferred from the history, but may be specified on the death certificate to differentiate from SIDS.

PM finds a cause in about a 1/3 of cases) eg

  • Infection
  • Cardiomyopathy, anomalies of coronaries
  • Ion channelopathies
  • Metabolic disorders eg MCAD

See also Prevention, and Sudden unexpected postnatal collapse.

Scalds and burns

Study of accidental scalds/burns in 1215 children, looking predominantly at issues of prevention:

72% were <5 years, peak prevalence in 1-year-olds.

Commonest scald agent <5 years was a cup/mug of hot beverage (someone else’s, obviously).

Scalds affected the front of the body in almost all (96%): predominantly to the face, arms and upper trunk in <5-year-olds, compatible with pulling on an adult’s arm. Older children had scalds to the lower trunk, legs and hands.

Contact burns (<5 years) were mostly from touching hot items in the home, esp hair straighteners, irons and oven hobs.

Many contact burns in older children happen outdoors.

67% of all contact burns affected the hands.


Arch Dis Child doi:10.1136/archdischild-2013-304991  A M Kemp, S Jones, Z Lawson, S A Maguire


Constructing sick child in hospital

Design of hospital wards and symbolic practices try to maintain continuities with life at home.  For young people though, the “childhood” presented may not resonate with their own sense of self and identity.  “Sick child” contradicts modern cultural values of children being “priceless”, the value placed on futurity.  Great Ormond St originally treated only children between 2 and 10yr – beyond that was considered not to need any different treatment!

Childhood now up to 18, according to UNCRC.  The existing watershed of 11yrs and entry to high school is not recognized in hospitals.  Children’s wards not seen as being scary, rather full of familiarity.  Nor a place for respite from work, duties – rules exist about when TVs can be used etc that mirror school routines.  The fact that family members continue to provide care  is another continuity.

For young people however, things are rather different.  They dislike the baby-ish aspects of ward decor or age-inappropriate toys/facilities.

The institutionalization of childhood has led to young people spending less time in adult society, or with their family, and more in age-based institutions – even when at home, they can spend a large amount of time communicating with their peers, away from the gaze of their parents.  This does not happen in hospital.  It is difficult for friends to visit, and mobile phone use is restricted.  And the strangeness that does exist in hospital can create a sense of social isolation – this being an environment your friends wouldn’t want to be in.

For YP, being in hospital curtails their (new) independence, and subjects them to intense parenting that they may no longer be familiar with.  Little room for possessions, for personalization.  Loss of privacy esp bathrooms a concern.

Allison James, Penny Curtis (Sheffield) Sociological Review, Vol. 60, 754–772 (2012) DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2012.02132.x