When it comes to child health, how are America's kids doing?

"Overall, the health of America's children is certainly good to excellent," says Edward Sondik, PhD, director of the National Center for Health Statistics. "But the disparities that we've seen in the past continue to persist, and there's a considerable challenge there," he says.

Sondik and colleagues summed up the government's new report, "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2005," in a media teleconference.

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Report's Health Highlights

Among the report's findings:

—83 percent of parents said their kids were in "excellent" or "very good" health.

—Teen births are at an all-time low: 22 live births per 1,000 girls aged 15-17.

—Childhood immunization (for children aged 19 months to 35 months) is at a record high: 81 percent of kids get recommended shots.

—The death rate continues to drop for kids aged 1-4 and 5-14.

—Only 2 percent of U.S. kids aged 1-5 have high blood lead levels — down from 89 percent 20 to 25 years ago.

Read Web MD's "10 Ways to Raise Food-Smart Children."

Infant Deaths, Low-Birth Weight Babies Rose Slightly

Infant mortality, while still near a record low, rose from 6.8 per 1,000 live births in 2001 to 7.0 per 1,000 live births in 2002. That was mainly due to an increase in babies weighing less than 2 pounds at birth, states a news release.

The number of low-birth-weight babies also rose slightly from 2002 to 2003 (from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent).

How Many Kids Are There?

There were 73 million kids aged 17 and younger in the U.S. in 2003. They have made up a smaller slice of America's population since the mid-1960s.

Those numbers are stabilizing. By 2020, kids should account for 24 percent of the U.S. population, according to the report.

Asthma a 'Real Concern'

About one in eight (13 percent) of U.S. kids have ever been diagnosed with asthma. About 9 percent have asthma today, the report states.

About two-thirds of those with asthma have had one or more attacks in the previous year.

Asthma is being diagnosed more often, says Sondik.

"This is a real concern because this is one of the areas where hospitalization rates have increased, and actually, mortality rates have increased for asthma in the past," says Duane Alexander, MD.

Alexander also took part in the teleconference. He directs the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"This is something we're just starting to get under control with better medication, better follow-up, [and] better treatment for kids with this condition," says Alexander.

Asthma statistics have been "pretty steady" for the last decade, says Alexander.

Weighty Issue

Sixteen percent of U.S. kids were overweight in 1999-2002, states the report. That's up from around 11 percent in 1988-1994.

Those numbers aren't new, but they're "very important," Alexander says.

Alcohol, Cigarettes, Illegal Drug Use

The report includes figures on alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drug use by 12th graders:

— 29 percent reported drinking at least 5 alcoholic drinks in a row in the past two weeks.

— 16 percent had smoked cigarettes daily in the past 30 days.

— 23 percent had tried illicit drugs in the past 30 days.

Those figures were "relatively stable" this year, says Sondik.

Racial, Economic Differences

Some patterns stood out:

—More white 12th graders had used alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs than black or Hispanic 12th graders.

—Teen births are at least twice as common among black and Hispanic teens as among whites.

—Asthma is more common in urban areas and with poverty.

"What we find in almost all of our statistics is that there's a difference here in terms of whether the children are living in poverty or not in poverty, and also by race," says Sondik.

"Black and Hispanic children, in general, don't fare as well as white children," he says.

Mental Issues Noted

In 2003, 5 percent of children aged 4-17 were reported by a parent to have "definite or severe difficulties with emotions, concentration, behavior, or being able to get along with people," states the report.

Most of those parents (65 percent) tried to get help for their children. But 9 percent had been unable to follow through on care because they could not afford it.

Family Structure

The report also covered education, crime, and family structure.

In general, kids living with two married parents fared best in the categories examined.

However, most children in every family structure have positive outcomes in those areas, government officials stressed in their teleconference.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2005." Edward Sondik, PhD, director, National Center for Health Statistics. Duane Alexander, MD, director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. News release, NIH/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.