Will teens rebel less, connect more with parents, Will the battle against obesity grow in intensity, Will babies, especially girls, get a healthier start in 2007?

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By KidsHealth.org

McClatchy News Service

There are myriad health issues impacting children and families, and here are 10 important trends to watch in 2007. The 10 issues represent a wide range of concerns: from HIV infections involving millions of children worldwide to the technology that enables kids and teens to connect with one another. Some issues, like the growing impact of obesity, threaten dire consequences for decades to come. Others, like the newly available HPV immunization, have the potential to save the lives of many.

These are not the only important issues affecting children’s health, but some worth watching:

1. The electronic age of health care

From e-prescribing to disease blogs, advances in technology are fast transforming the quality of health care and the way families access it.

Electronic medical records (EMRs) hold the promise of improving health care by increasing the efficiency of everything from accessing a patient’s medical history to tracking medical errors. Meanwhile, Internet innovations and a rapid expansion of health-related Web sites have made more medical information accessible to parents and families. As consumer-directed health plans put more decisions about medical care in families’ hands, parents increasingly turn to the Internet for advice, support and information.

What to watch:

Advances in technology are producing new ways to deliver health information for consumers and doctors. These changes could give parents more freedom, flexibility, and responsibility when it comes to meeting family medical needs. However, it will be more important than ever for doctors to work with their patients to ensure that the information derived from the burgeoning array of media sources is relevant and appropriate for their children. No matter what, consumer-driven health care is here to stay – and more changes are in the offing.

2. Obesity

Schools, restaurants, retailers, food makers, and government agencies joined the fight against childhood obesity in 2006. Schools introduced a host of new wellness policies to improve physical activity, nutrition education, and the food served at school. Some schools worked to remove fast-food outlets, soda machines, and food advertising from campus. The nation’s three largest soft drink companies announced they’d replace sodas in schools with healthier alternatives. Meanwhile, there were movements in New York and Chicago to outlaw trans fats in restaurants and list nutrition information on menus.

What to watch:

As programs to combat obesity begin to proliferate, attention has turned toward monitoring them to find out what’s working. Ideally, that will result in support and expansion of programs that prove effective for all populations. Now that obesity is recognized as an epidemic and its threat to global health is more fully understood, the battle against it is likely to penetrate every corner of kids’ lives – from their school cafeterias and classrooms to the commercials they see and the snacks they get on sports fields.

3. New safeguards for kids

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine for females between the ages of 9 and 26 to prevent human papillomavirus (or HPV) infection, which causes most cervical cancers and genital warts. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made new recommendations for kids to be immunized against rotavirus and hepatitis A, and expanded recommendations for influenza, meningitis, and whooping cough. There is little doubt that these new immunizations will save many lives. But just as certainly, they will provoke additional resistance among parents who shun vaccinations based on their religious beliefs and safety concerns.

What to watch:

With the new vaccines and recommendations, it will become more challenging than ever for parents to stay up to date about which immunizations are appropriate for each child’s health needs. And the expanding array of shots and the rising costs associated with them could make paying for immunizations more of an issue: Health plans may force parents to pay for some or all vaccines, and some doctors may not offer all the vaccines due to problems with reimbursement. Left unchecked, such a trend could create a divide in society between kids who have full protection and those who don’t.

4. AIDS: a push for prevention

With the AIDS epidemic in its 25th year, there is a growing understanding of just how far-reaching the disease has become – and of the need to prevent HIV infection and to screen kids for it early on.

In the United States, half of all new HIV infections occur in those ages 13 to 24. And as many as a quarter of those living with HIV and AIDS don’t know they’re infected. To address that and help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2006 recommended that all teens and adults – from ages 13 to 64 – get tested for HIV as part of routine medical care. Meanwhile, physician groups are stepping up to do more testing and provide more education about the risks of sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

What to watch:

The number of HIV/AIDS cases has grown from a relative few 25 years ago to many millions – and that number is likely to continue to rise until an effective immunization is developed and disseminated. Huge swaths of humanity are being devastated and whole nations hollowed out. Education and other preventive methods, as well as better and more affordable treatments, can slow the spread and reduce the number of new cases. But the AIDS crisis is far from over.

5. Giving babies a healthier start

Doctors are focusing more on girls’ health well before the child-bearing years to make sure that when the time arrives, they’ll have the best chance for a healthy pregnancy. In May 2006, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommended that girls start seeing an OB/GYN around age 13 to discuss menstruation, sexuality issues, and sexually transmitted diseases, and to head off any weight, mental health, or eating problems that may affect child-bearing health down the road. Meanwhile, researchers are learning that the factors affecting a newborn’s health reach back at least two generations.

What to watch:

Women of child-bearing age are likely to get more counseling from doctors on the mental and physical health measures that will build a foundation of good health when they’re ready to have kids. Parents of teen girls may get counseling earlier to make sure that their daughters get healthy starts, with good nutrition and preventive gynecological care. This new wave of prenatal care promises to foster a generation of healthier newborns with fewer medical needs throughout their lives. And that could help reduce the emotional and financial toll these preemies take on scores of families – and the entire health care system.

6. Drawing the line online

Teens are firmly entrenched in the electronic world: 20 percent say their favorite way of staying in touch with friends is by instant messaging (IM) or email; 75 percent have an online profile on a social networking site such as Myspace or Xanga, and roughly 1/3 of teens said in a recent survey they have friends they’ve never met in person and only talk to online. Parents are grappling with how to make sure their kids get the benefits that come from exploring these new frontiers without exposing them to risks like Internet predators, pornography, cyberbullying, unsafe disclosure of personal information, and too much screen time.

What to watch:

As online opportunities for kids proliferate, so do the resources for parents to keep kids safe. Industry, health-care groups, and federal agencies are stepping up their campaigns to monitor and guard kids’ electronic activities. Parents who are comfortable with technology have a growing arsenal of tools available to monitor kids online – from tracking their keystrokes to reading their e-mail – and will need to balance how much privacy to give their children with the supervision kids need to stay safe. Many parents will confront a growing technological divide between themselves and kids who, from a very young age, are more technologically savvy than any generation before.

7. Tapping into stem cell potential

Scientists hope that stem cells, which hold the promise of repairing damaged or defective cells in the body, might cure and treat illnesses that affect millions of kids, including Crohn’s disease, diabetes, muscular dystrophy and spinal cord injuries. While U.S. research continues to focus on the political, religious, and ethical aspects of stem cell research, scientists in all corners of the globe are exploring just how much potential stem cells hold.

What to watch:

As research around the globe continues, scientists and doctors will learn more about possible roles for stem cells in treating human diseases. The recent shift in the U.S. political climate may yield more latitude for conducting stem cell research here. Will this promising new approach really bring the breakthroughs that families affected by many chronic, devastating diseases hope? Initial results are promising, but only time will tell.

8. Keeping healthy foods safe

As many families strive to eat more nutritiously by including lots of fish and produce in their diet, concern has grown about the safety of these foods. Produce now accounts for 6 percent of the outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, up sharply from previous years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And outbreaks of food-borne illness due to E. coli contamination in spinach and salmonella contamination in tomatoes sent a strong reminder to consumers in 2006 about the importance of taking food safety precautions.

What to watch:

With many experts predicting more produce contamination cases, government officials will need to re-examine whether regulators have the resources and strategy to handle an increasingly complex job. Some have called for a single agency devoted to food safety to replace the patchwork of more than a dozen agencies that now handle the job. Ultimately, however, because the journey from farm to table often spans the globe, it will fall to parents to take more responsibility for ensuring the healthfulness and safety of the food they put on the table. Currently, that’s not an easy task.

9. Coping with health-care costs

Because of inadequate health-plan coverage, many families are going without preventive health care entirely or delaying care until it becomes an emergency. The result? People showing up for care when they’re sicker and require more costly medical services. The lack of insurance is causing more people to seek care at emergency departments, which are required by federal law to care for all who show up, regardless of ability to pay. Because hospitals and other health-care providers are providing more care that they’re not getting paid for, they’re under more financial pressure and have to make hard choices about limiting the care they provide.

What to watch:

As financial pressure continues to mount on the health-care system, it will be felt not just by poor families but also by the private employers who pay for health-care coverage. Corporations are likely to force the issue into the spotlight for lawmakers and demand solutions. In the meantime, many families with health insurance likely will see increased premiums or diminished benefits. They may even find that as cutbacks continue, they can’t always find care when they need it.

10. Staying connected during the teen years

Researchers are revisiting the age-old stereotype of the rebellious teen years. As more is understood about what makes teens tick, light is being shed on how parents can stay connected to them during this part of the journey to adulthood.

What to watch:

The increased understanding of how kids develop and behave during the teen years also puts a spotlight on how parents can give kids the space they need to develop while staying connected to them during adolescence. And if parents and teens stay more connected, kids may make better decisions when confronted with the tough stuff of growing up – from peer pressure, to opportunities to try drugs and alcohol, to decisions about sex.

For more health information written for kids, visit KidsHealth.org/kid.

KidsHealth. for parents, kids, and teens is from the health experts of The Nemours Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to children’s health.

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