Eating disorders are biting deeper into childhood, an expert has warned after conducting a study which included a five-year-old with the potentially fatal condition.
Dr Sloane Madden says demand for critical care beds at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, in Sydney, has surged over the past 12 months for children who were severely malnourished because of an Early Onset Eating Disorder (EOED).
The condition commonly linked to teenage girls was now becoming increasingly prevalent in Australian girls, and boys, aged 10 to 12 and even younger, he told AAP.
"Our own experience at the children's hospital, we have had a 50 per cent increase in demand for beds, and we haven't seen that increase in demand in hospitals looking after older adolescents with eating disorders," Dr Madden said.
"At the moment, we have eight children in the hospital where we normally take six and we've got another five waiting for beds.
The parents when they see us are really quite terrified but they are extremely grateful that someone is finally taking their child's illness seriously.
"What we are seeing clinically, and what is being reported anecdotally around the world is that kids are presenting in greater numbers at a younger age," he said.
It was not just a case of the children being fussy eaters, said the Westmead-based child psychiatrist, as speaking to the children revealed a desire to be "thinner".
"They certainly will tell you that they believe that they are fat, that they want to be thinner, and they have no insight into the fact that they are malnourished and they are literally starving themselves to death," he says.
"And the parents when they see us are really quite terrified but they are extremely grateful that someone is finally taking their child's illness seriously."
Dr Madden says children are often "medically unstable" when brought to hospital with very low blood pressure, heart rate and temperature which "basically is putting them at risk of dying".
They often needed to be tube-fed, and placed on anti-depressant or anti-psychotic medication, but if treated early their chance of full recovery was were good.
However, Dr Madden's study of all Australian children with EOED from 2002 to 2005 shows there is a trend to late diagnosis, meaning children being hospitalised with more physical complications.
"It makes us very concerned that these children are being misdiagnosed, or they are being diagnosed late and not being referred for appropriate care," he says.
Of the 101 cases of EOED uncovered by the study, there were 74 girls and 25 boys aged five to 13 (gender was not specified in two cases).
Extrapolating this data, Dr Madden estimates Australia's incidence of EOED now stands about 1.4 cases for every 100,000 children aged five to 13 years. Of those, 1.1 cases would require a hospital intervention, according to the research published in the latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia.
The number of cases is expected to rise, Dr Madden says, unless there is a change in the media's obsession with fat and weight.
"I think that there needs to be a move away from this focus on weight and numbers and body fat, and a focus on healthy eating and exercise," he says.
"You can see that in current (television) programs like The Biggest Loser, where it is all about numbers and weight, it's not helpful for those people and it's certainly not helpful for this group of kids."
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