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Health of Children
Health of Adults
STDs and AIDS
Health Care Costs
Health of Children
Infant mortality, the ratio of deaths to live births in the first year of life, was very high in 1900, as the upper chart shows. About one of every six infants died before the first birthday. By the end of the century, only one of every 141 infants died before the first birthday (see page 4).
Much of this improvement predated the introduction of antibiotics and sophisticated obstetric methods. The most important factors in the decline of infant mortality included better nutrition and housing, central heating, pure drinking water, the shift of births from home to hospital, and the availability of feeding supplements. During the second half of the century, antibiotics, immunization, and new techniques for keeping premature infants alive drove infant mortality still lower.
Diphtheria, measles, and pertussis (whooping cough) were the leading killers of children early in the century. In 1920, more than 30,000 children died from one or the other. More than 200,000 cases of diphtheria were reported in 1921, almost 300,000 cases of pertussis in 1934, and 900,000 cases of measles in 1941. Many more cases probably went unreported.
By 1960, as the lower chart shows, the death rates for all three diseases had been reduced to zero. Diphtheria was becoming rare; measles and pertussis were still common but no longer lethal. By 1995, the incidence of measles and pertussis had fallen significantly, and not a single case of diphtheria was reported in the continental United States that year.
Other communicable childhood diseases—rubella (German measles), scarlet fever, and mumps, for example—followed similar trajectories, first becoming less dangerous and then all but disappearing. The outbreaks of acute poliomyelitis that frightened parents throughout the country every summer ended abruptly when an effective vaccine was developed in the 1950s.
CB, Abstract of the 1900 Census, table 97; HS series B 142; SA 1922, table 53; SA 1959, table 73; SA 1980, table 200; SA 1997, tables 213 and 1336; and SA 1999, tables 133 and 226.