Health Trends in Children: From Autism to Zika

A discussion of recent children's health reports

A young girl reading books and thinking about her future.
What do current trends say about the future health of our kids?. Photo by Getty Images

How are our kids doing these days? It kind of depends on who you talk to.

Experts in pediatrics and public health state that this is a very healthy generation, with the lowest infant mortality rates, low rates of hospitalizations, and access to healthier food.

Some others, typically tied to the anti-vaccine and holistic or natural medicine movement, claim that kids are sicker than they have ever been in history.

These same folks will likely falsely blame our high vaccination rates for a so-called autism epidemic, high infant mortality rates, and rising rates of peanut allergies, etc.


Children and teens can get 13 vaccines that protect them against 16 vaccine preventable diseases, including diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, varicella, pneumococcal disease, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningococcal disease, HPV, rotavirus, Hib, and flu.

This is a big increase from the seven diseases kids were protected against in 1980, when kids were still at risk to get epiglottitis, Hib meningitis, and Pneumococcal meningitis, etc.

Vaccines are one of the greatest public health achievements, but there is still work to be done, including:

  • a universal flu vaccine
  • a vaccine that combines all of the Neisseria meningitidis serogroups in one shot
  • development of new vaccines that can prevent Ebola, Zika, RSV, HIV, and Lyme disease, etc.
  • a pertussis vaccine that offers more long-lasting protection
  • getting everyone vaccinated - intentionally unvaccinated kids and adults still cause outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases

Still, in 2014, the CDC reported that "vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years."

Infant Mortality

Infant mortality rates, or the number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births, has always been a little higher in the United States than some other developed countries.

Of course, this isn't because of vaccines, as some folks propose, but rather because of the way that infant mortality is defined in the United States. Unlike the US, some countries don't include premature babies in their infant mortality rates. And since preterm births are one of the highest causes of infant mortality in the US, that makes comparing rates unreliable.

Other leading causes of infant mortality in the US include birth defects, SIDS, maternal complications of pregnancy, and injuries.

Fortunately, infant mortality rates have been steadily dropping for years.

In fact, they reached their lowest levels ever in 2014.

Asthma and Allergy

The percent of children with asthma has been fairly steady over the years, at about eight percent. Also steady, at five percent, is the number of children having one or more asthma attacks in the previous 12 months.

There has been "an increasing trend in the prevalence of children ever diagnosed with asthma" since 1997, but that trend has been reversed since 2011, with the prevalence declining in recent years.

Also, the rate of pediatric hospital stays for asthma declined from 2000 to 2010.

For other allergic-type conditions in children and teens, from 1997 to 2011:

  • food allergies increased from 3.4 percent to 5.1 percent
  • skin allergies (eczema) increased from 7.4 percent to 12.5 percent
  • respiratory allergies (hay fever) remained unchanged, with a prevalence rate of about 17 precent

A study using data from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood, "Is Eczema Really on the Increase Worldwide?" found substantial increases in formerly low prevalence countries, but also found that "the epidemic of eczema seems to be leveling or decreasing in some countries with previously high prevalence rates."

Mental Health

We often hear that mental health issues are on the rise. Is that true? According to the latest statistics:

  • "a little more than 5 percent of children ages 4–17 were reported by a parent to have serious difficulties with emotions, concentration, behavior, or being able to get along with other people," which is unchanged since 2001
  • the percentage of teens with a Major Depressive Episode (MDE) during the past year did increase from nine percent in 2004 to 11 percent in 2013, however, "the percentage of youth with an MDE in the past year receiving treatment for depression, defined as seeing or talking to a medical doctor or other professional about the depressive episode and/or using prescription medication for depression in the past year, declined from 40 percent in 2004 to 38 percent in 2013"
  • rates of ADHD in children have been increasing steadily since 1997, from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011, although the rate and increase in kids taking ADHD medication is much lower, increasing from 4.8 percent in 2007 to 6.1 percent in 2011
  • from recent highs in 1994, suicide rates in boys and young adult males continue to slowly increase from their low points in 2001 (females) and 2007 (males)


While the prevalence of autism has certainly increased in the US, from 1 in 150 children (2000) to 1 in 68 (2010), experts do not think that it is because there are more autistic kids or that there is an autism epidemic.

Instead, experts think that "the balance of evidence suggests that it is more a surge in diagnosis than in disease."

And importantly, the latest autism prevalence rates reported by the CDC were the same as they were last time - 1 in 68.

Pediatric Cancer

You would think that cancer rates were increasing uncontrollably when you read about all of the "cancer causing toxins" on some websites.

Fortunately, cancer incidence rates have been declining for many major cancers in adults, including prostate, lung, colorectal, and brain cancer in men, and colorectal, ovary, cervical cancer in women.

Similarly, in children too, for most pediatric cancers, statistics show:

  • declining mortality rates
  • a stable rate of all cancers since 2001

And fortunately, childhood cancer has close to an 80 percent five-year survival rate.


While you would expect a rising incidence of type 2 diabetes with the rise of childhood obesity over the years, there has also been a surprising rise in type 1 diabetes.

From 2001 to 2009, the incidence of type 1 diabetes increased from 1.48 per 1000 to 1.93 per 1000. A worldwide trend, with the highest incidence in Finland, the cause for this increase is unknown.

Autoimmune Disease

In addition to conditions like lupus and celiac disease, there is concern that a whole new group of disorders is now occurring - autoimmune syndrome induced by adjuvants (ASIA).

What is ASIA?

It is a vaguely defined syndrome that seeks to blame vaccines as a cause for autoimmune diseases. Experts, however, "do not believe that it is a valid diagnosis."

What about other real autoimmune diseases?

  • celiac disease - although heightened awareness has likely led to an increase in diagnosis of celiac disease in children, it is thought that "reliable epidemiological data document a true increase in prevalence worldwide, with rates doubling approximately every 20 years"
  • type 1 diabetes - increasing as noted above
  • lupus (SLE)
  • juvenile dermatomyositis
  • scleroderma
  • juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA)

The absence of national studies of the incidence of many autoimmune diseases, like JIA and SLE, makes it hard to know exactly how they are trending, but it is safe to assume that they are increasing.

Although we don't know why autoimmune diseases are increasing, we do know that most share close genetic relationships. It is also likely that environmental factors could be strongly influencing this increase.

While infections are often thought to be a trigger in genetically susceptible people, vaccines are not, except in a few rare cases, such as developing ITP after getting an MMR vaccine. From the idea that you could develop multiple sclerosis after getting a hepatitis B vaccine to diabetes after Hib or another vaccine, studies have shown that vaccines do not cause autoimmune diseases.

Research continues to be done to look for what might be triggering this increase.

What Else You Should Know

Other things to know about the general health of today's children include:

  • although unchanged from 2013, at 78.8 years, life expectancy for the U.S. population in 2014 has steadily increased over the past 20 years.
  • hospitalizations were down or unchanged for children and teens from 2000 to 2012 for most conditions.
  • although childhood obesity rates increased sharply after the 1980s, many people will be surprised to know that they remained stable since 2003, and actually started to drop in preschool aged children.
  • pediatric prescriptions were 7% lower in 2010 than they were in 2002.
  • teen pregnancy rates reached a record low in 2013, although it is still higher than many developed countries.

With a steadily increasing life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates, kids today seem to be healthier than ever. Even as some disease trends are up, most others are down.

Most importantly, the "alarming trends" that some folks write about are certainly overblown.

Unfortunately, our children do have a lot of big problems facing them, both now and in their near future, from gun violence and climate change to the threat of emerging infections.

We shouldn't let worry about made up threats, like "toxins" in vaccines, create problems (outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases) that will take resources away from creating a safer and healthier future for our kids.


CDC. ADHD Data and Statistics. Accessed December 2015.

Dabelea, Dana MD, PhD. Prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Among Children and Adolescents From 2001 to 2009. JAMA. 2014;311(17):1778-1786

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2015

Guandalini, Stefano MD Celiac Disease A Review. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(3):272-278

Gupta, R, et al. The Prevalence, Severity and Distribution of Childhood Food Allergy in the United States. Pediatrics 2011; 10.1542/ped.2011-0204.

Hawkes D. Revisiting adverse reactions to vaccines: A critical appraisal of Autoimmune Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants (ASIA). J Autoimmun. 2015 May;59:77-84.

Jackson KD, Howie LD, Akinbami LJ. Trends in allergic conditions among children: United States, 1997–2011. NCHS data brief, no 121. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013.

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Siegel, David A. Cancer Incidence Rates and Trends Among Children and Adolescents in the United States, 2001–2009. PEDIATRICS Volume 134, Number 4, October 2014.

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