Europe and Central Asia has surpassed global progress on child mortality, more than halving the deaths of children under five and infants since 1990. And as progress for the poorest households has accelerated, the health gap between the richest and poorest has narrowed. However, persistent inequities reflect a continued failure to invest effectively in child-centred health systems for all. In South-East Europe, for example, child mortality among the Roma population is two to three times higher than national averages. Problems missed at an early age can be more difficult and expensive to address later in life. Such inequities are compounded by a failure to spot problems during pregnancy and during the first 1,000 days of life, when children’s bodies and brains build the foundations for their life-long development. Problems missed at an early age can be far more difficult and expensive to address later in life. Across the region, more than half of the children who die before their fifth birthday die in their first month of life.These deaths are often the result of conditions that are readily preventable or treatable at low cost through, for example, access to good obstetric, ante-natal and post-natal care, routine immunization and exclusive breastfeeding . The main killers of children under the age of five in the region are also preventable: pneumonia and injuries. Emergencies have an intense impact on child health and nutrition. The impact of emergencies on children's health and nutrition can be extreme. Children on the move, such as those caught in Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis , for example, often lack adequate clothing, food, shelter or warmth. Access to health services, including immunization, has often been inadequate on their journey. The region’s existing HIV prevalence, coupled with lack of safe water and sanitation, as well as ongoing challenges related to early child development and protection all heighten the vulnerability of children during emergencies. The region is also experiencing vaccine ‘hesitancy’ – the reluctance of some parents to immunize their children, or parental delays in immunization . This hesitancy, often fuelled by misinformation, puts children at risk of contracting, and even dying from, infectious diseases, including polio and measles.
Improving health literacy among refugee and migrant children
UNICEF has worked with partners and with young refugees and migrants on the ground to identify information gaps – work that has, in turn, guided the development of health literacy packages across all five countries on a range of crucial health issues, from immunization and nutrition to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV). The assessment has shaped the development of detailed plans on how to ensure that health messages reach their audience and have an impact. The health literacy packages have also drawn on existing materials, including Facts for Life , My Safety and Resilience Girls Pocket Guide and an adapted version of the UNFPA curriculum: ‘Boys on the Move’. Refugees and migrants face a chronic lack of health information in their own languages, and a lack of information that reaches them through the channels or people they trust health navigation Some common priorities have been identified by refugees and migrants across all five countries, including access to immunization and other primary health care services, breastfeeding and young child feeding, and the prevention of GBV. They have also flagged up the pressing need for more mental health and psychological services. Other issues have emerged as priorities in specific countries, including cyberbullying and online safety in Italy, and substance abuse among young people In Serbia – the focus of a new in-depth UNICEF study. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is a new and urgent priority for refugee and migrant communities – and one that has heightened the health risks they already face by curtailing their movements and their access to health services. A consultation with refugee and migrant adolescents and young people living in Italy has revealed major gaps in their knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, drawing on an online survey, a U-Report poll and a series of focus group discussions. It has highlighted some common misunderstandings, such as the myth that masturbation causes infertility, and continued perceptions around the importance of a woman’s virginity at marriage, as well as knowledge gaps around menstruation, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The consultation also found, however, that the young participants want to know far more about this crucial area of health. As one young man from Guinea noted during a focus group discussion: “often young people do not want to know if they have an infection, also because they are not aware that these can be treated. It is so critical to raise awareness on STIs tests and treatment options.”
The Roma are one of Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged minority groups. Of the 10 to 12 million Roma people in Europe, around two-thirds live in central and eastern European countries. While some have escaped from poverty, millions live in slums and lack the basic services they need, from healthcare and education to electricity and clean water. Discrimination against Roma communities is commonplace, fuelling their exclusion. Far from spurring support for their social inclusion, their poverty and poor living conditions often reinforce the stereotyped views of policymakers and the public. And far from receiving the support that is their right, Roma children face discrimination that denies them the essentials for a safe, healthy and educated childhood. Discrimination against Roma children can start early, and have a life-long impact. The problems facing Roma children can start early in life. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, Roma infants are four times more likely than others to be born underweight. They are also less likely to be registered at birth, and many lack the birth certificate that signals their right to a whole range of services. As they grow, Roma children are more likely to be underweight than non-Roma children and less likely to be fully immunized. Few participate in early childhood education. They are less likely than non-Roma children to start or complete primary school, and Roma girls, in particular, are far less likely to attend secondary school. Only 19 per cent of Roma children make it this far in Serbia, compared to 89 per cent of non-Roma children. There are also disparities in literacy rates across 10 countries in the region, with rates of 80 per cent for Roma boys and just under 75 per cent for Roma girls, compared to near universal literacy rates at national level. Roma children are too often segregated into ‘remedial’ classes within regular schools, and are more likely to be in ‘special’ schools – a reflection of schools that are failing to meet their needs, rather than any failure on their part. In Roma communities, child marriage may be perceived as a ‘valid’ way to protect young girls, and as a valued tradition. In reality, such marriages deepen the disparities experienced by girls, and narrow their opportunities in life. In many Balkan countries, half of all Roma women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18, compared to around 10 per cent nationally. Child marriage and school drop-out are closely linked, particularly for girls, and such marriages also expose girls to the dangers of early pregnancy and childbirth, as well as a high risk of domestic violence.