California's Surgeon General Makes Case For Better Response To Childhood Trauma

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris spoke about the health effects of toxic stress during a visit in Cleveland. (Photo: Lecia Bushak / ideastream)
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris spoke about the health effects of toxic stress during a visit in Cleveland. (Photo: Lecia Bushak / ideastream)
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California recently appointed pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris as its first state Surgeon General. Her focus is on addressing childhood trauma, and she spoke Thursday at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.

Four in 10 children in Cleveland have faced two or more adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, according to the 2018 Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative. Examples of ACEs include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, parental neglect, or substance abuse at home.

Childhood trauma creates toxic stress, according to Burke Harris. This affects the developing brain and can increase the risk of things like heart disease, cancer, and mental health issues.

"Understanding that mechanism is absolutely critical, because then we understand how we can interrupt the progression from early adversity to disease and early death," Burke Harris said.

Dr. Lolita McDavid of UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital hopes more pediatricians will be trained to address mental health issues in children. She also hopes that more healthcare providers will test for ACEs routinely.

"It’s not just making sure that kids have immunizations, and that they don’t have ear infections," McDavid said. "As pediatricians we have a very short window of time to make sure that child has the armor that they need to go out into the world and be healthy people."

Burke Harris stressed that healthcare providers in Ohio should test children for ACEs to better treat diseases, and that mental health care, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy relationships are all ways counter toxic stress.

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