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Open Access Research article

Preschool children's health and its association with parental education and individual living conditions in East and West Germany

Xianming du Prel1, Ursula Krämer1, Heidrun Behrendt2, Johannes Ring3, Hanna Oppermann4, Tamara Schikowski1 and Ulrich Ranft1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institut für umweltmedizinische Forschung (IUF) an der Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany

2 ZAUM – Zentrum Allergie und Umwelt, Technische Universität München and Division of Environmental Dermatology and Allergy, GSF und Technische Universität München, München, Germany

3 Dermatologische Klinik und Poliklinik am Biederstein, Technischen Universität München, München, Germany

4 Landesamt für Verbraucherschutz des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt, Magdeburg, Germany

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BMC Public Health 2006, 6:312  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-6-312

Published: 28 December 2006

Abstract

Background

Social inequalities in health exist globally and are a major public health concern. This study focus on a systematic investigation into the associations between health indicators, living conditions and parental educational level as indicator of the social status of 6-year-old children living in West and East Germany in the decade after re-unification. Explanations of observed associations between parental education and health indicators were examined.

Methods

All boys and girls entering elementary school and living in predefined areas of East and West Germany were invited to participate in a series of cross-sectional surveys conducted between 1991 and 2000. Data of 28,888 German children with information on parental education were included in the analysis. Information about educational level of the parents, individual living conditions, symptoms and diagnoses of infectious diseases and allergies were taken from questionnaire. At the day of investigation, atopic eczema was diagnosed by dermatologists, blood was taken for the determination of allergen-specific immuno-globulin E, height and weight was measured and lung function tests were done in subgroups. Regression analysis was applied to investigate the associations between the health indicators and parental educational level as well as the child's living conditions. Gender, urban/rural residency and year of survey were used to control for confounding.

Results

Average response was 83% in East Germany and 71% in West Germany. Strong associations between health indicators and parental education were observed. Higher educated parents reported more diagnoses and symptoms than less educated. Children of higher educated parents were also more often sensitized against grass pollen or house dust mites, but had higher birth weights, lower airway resistance and were less overweight at the age of six. Furthermore, most of the health indicators were significantly associated with one or more living conditions such as living as a single child, unfavourable indoor air, damp housing condition, maternal smoking during pregnancy or living near a busy road. The total lung capacity and the prevalence of an atopic eczema at the day of investigation were the only health indicators those did not show associations with any of the predictor variables.

Conclusion

Despite large differences in living conditions and evidence that some poor health outcomes were directly associated with poor living conditions, only few indicators demonstrated poorer health in social disadvantaged children. These were in both parts of Germany increased levels of overweight, higher airway resistance and, in East Germany only, reduced height in children with lower educated parents compared to those of higher education. In both East and West Germany, higher prevalence of airway symptoms was associated with a damp housing condition, and lower birth weight, reduced height and increased airway resistance at the age of six were associated with maternal smoking during pregnancy. The latter explained to a large extent the difference in birth weight and airway resistance between the educational groups.