Health professionals say `Healthy Start’ could be improved

Health professionals say making vitamins free to all pregnant women and children under the age of 5 would be more cost-effective and lead to greater health gains for society than current provision, a study led by the University of Dundee has found.

The research, published in the British Medical Journal, examined the impact of the UK Government’s Healthy Start Programme, a means-tested scheme designed to improve the nutrition of women and young children from low-income families.

The study sought the views of 669 health professionals including doctors, midwives and health visitors – mainly in London and Yorkshire & the Humber - who work in primary care and community settings that serve rural, urban and ethnically diverse populations.

Participants were “concerned” by the low uptake of the Healthy Start scheme and the consequences of this for children’s health. They experienced Healthy Start vitamin distribution as logistically complex, requiring the time, resources and creative thinking of a range of local and regional practitioners from senior strategists to administrative support workers.

In the light of this, many participants argued that moving to universal provision of vitamin supplements would be more cost-effective than the current system.

Dr Alison McFadden, Research Fellow in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Dundee, led the study. She said, “There is consistency of views of health practitioners that the current targeted system of providing free vitamin supplements for low-income childbearing women and young children via the Healthy Start programme is not fulfilling its potential to address vitamin deficiencies.

“There is wide professional and voluntary sector support for moving from the current targeted system to provision of free vitamin supplements for all pregnant and new mothers, and children up to their fifth birthday.

“Vitamin supplements minimise the risk of poor health outcomes and vitamin D deficiency is a key concern,” explained Dr McFadden. “Studies show that a significant proportion of people are low in vitamin D.  Pregnant and breast- feeding women are a high-risk group because if they are low in vitamin D, it is likely that their baby will be too, putting them at risk of convulsions and rickets.”

Roddy Isles
Head of Press
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