The claim: More than half of children have a chronic illness, and children are getting sicker
As states continue to deliberate how children can safely attend school amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 isn’t the only illness on people’s minds.
To Jan. 16 Facebook post claims the number of American children with chronic illnesses is on the rise.
“Over 1 in 2 kids today has a chronic illness. By 2025, it will be 8 in 10,” Dr. Elisa Song, a self-described “holistic pediatrician,” wrote in the post. “Our kids are getting sicker & sicker.
“This new normal? It’s NOT normal.”
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The post accumulated more than 1,500 interactions within a month.
Estimates for the proportion of American children with chronic diseases vary, but the best available evidence suggests it does not exceed 50%. And while data from recent years show rates of chronic childhood illness are slowly rising, that rise has not been as large as the post makes it seem.
USA TODAY reached out to Song for comment.
Most children don’t have chronic illness
While estimates vary, there is no evidence the majority of American children have a chronic illness.
Citing the National Survey of Children’s Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 40% of school-aged children and adolescents have at least one chronic illness. The CDC defines chronic illnesses as “conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.” They include asthma, obesity and other physical conditions, as well as behavioral problems.
However, Christina Bethell, director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, told USA TODAY that pinpointing how many children suffer from a chronic illness is “complex” because definitions vary widely.
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The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, says a chronic condition lasts anywhere from three months to a lifetime. Between 10 to 20 million children and adolescents suffer from a chronic condition, according to the association’s website
As of the 2020 Census, the population of Americans younger than 18 was about 72 million. That would put the percentage of children with chronic illnesses at between roughly 13% to 27%.
That range is similar to other estimates. The pharmaceutical company Merck, which describes chronic health conditions as those that typically last more than a year and are severe enough to limit activity, says an estimated 10% to 30% of children are affected by chronic health conditions.
Childhood illness rising, but not by much
The Facebook post’s projection that eight in 10 children will have a chronic illness by 2025 makes little sense, according to Bethell.
The percentage of children who have an ongoing condition for which they have special healthcare needs rose by about 1% between 2017 and 2020, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. The percentage of children who have “one or more current or lifelong health conditions” rose by a similar amount over the same time period.
So it’s an increase, but not much of one.
“It is getting higher, but it’s getting higher at a rate that isn’t like, going from 10% to 50%,” Bethell said, adding that researchers will know more once 2021 data is available.
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Dr. Leonardo Trasande, professor of pediatrics at New York University, said that, while the eight in 10 projection seems “misleading,” there is some cause for concern due to environmental exposures.
He cited a Jan. 6 paper in the Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology that details the negative impacts of certain chemicals – many of them in common household products – on children. Bethell also said environmental factors like air pollution and lead exposure, as well as emotional discord, can contribute to childhood diseases.
Our rating: Partially false
Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that more than half of children have a chronic illness and that children are getting sicker. Data from the CDC and other organizations shows that less than half of American children have chronic illnesses, although the exact number varies depending on what’s counted as a chronic illness. While data indicate the number of children with chronic illnesses is rising, experts say the projection of a massive spike in the Facebook post is not supported by available data.
Our fact-check sources:
- USA TODAY, Jan. 12, Risky return to school: Less than 20% of elementary kids are vaccinated; Fauci says US could soon learn to live with COVID. Live updates
- USA TODAY, Jan. 18, Billie Eilish is right. Porn is inflicting serious harm on America’s children.
- USA TODAY, Nov. 1, 2021, Screen time among teenagers during COVID more than doubled outside of virtual school, study finds
- Christina Bethell, Jan. 18, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, accessed Jan. 25, The National Survey of Children’s Health
- Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, accessed Jan. 25, 2019-2020 National Survey of Children’s Health
- Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, accessed Jan. 31, Managing Chronic Health Conditions
- Merck Manual, accessed Jan. 31, Children with Chronic Health Conditions
- Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, accessed Jan. 25, 2017-2018 National Survey of Children’s Health
- Christina Bethell, Jan. 27, Phone interview with USA TODAY
- Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Jan. 26, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Jan. 6, Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Child Health
- USA TODAY, Feb. 8, Is it time to phase out masks in schools? Why more states and doctors are saying yes.
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