A conceptual illustration showing a flourished plant pot, the plant is shaping a child head, in the back there are few buds.

Credit: Oli Winward

A parent’s natural instinct is to protect their children from the illnesses that can disrupt their lives. In many respects, this is easier now than ever before, but there are still numerous challenges for researchers, physicians and policymakers to address to keep children happy and healthy.

Vaccination is crucial for ensuring children’s health, yet even before the COVID-19 pandemic threw childhood vaccination schedules into disarray, there was already a worrying downward trend in paediatric vaccination rates. Getting these crucial public-health campaigns back on track must now be a priority. Questions also surround the supply of vaccines to the world's poorest children. The first shot against malaria is now being rolled out in Africa, but there is not enough to go round; for many children, protection could be years away.

New treatments for some childhood illnesses are also badly needed. Often there is little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to perform the clinical trials necessary to get drugs approved for children, even when the treatments are already in use in adults. However, some positive strides are being made. Cell-based immunotherapies such as CAR-T-cell therapy have been impressively effective in treating blood cancers — especially acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, the most common childhood cancer. Solid tumours have so far proved to be a trickier foe, but fresh approaches to this problem are showing promise.

Children’s mental health is also being taken seriously. Problems such as anxiety and depression can have their roots anchored in something as ubiquitous and seemingly benign as social media, or as obviously traumatic as war. Whatever the cause, there are strategies to help children deal with these challenges. And physicians are developing more effective and compassionate ways of helping mothers and their babies in cases of opioid addiction, which can lead to babies being born with a substance dependency and battling symptoms of withdrawal (S56).

We are pleased to acknowledge the financial support of Sanofi in producing this Outlook. As always, Nature retains sole responsibility for all editorial content.