Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a child at the beginning of the century? Back in 1900, kids' daily lives were remarkably different from yours today. No Internet. No television. No airplanes. No flu shots. No antibiotics.

Children who lived in 1900 had fun just as you do today--but in very different ways. Like you, they played games, went to school, did homework and helped out around the house. And like you they were susceptible to catching colds, flu, strep throat, ear infections and common childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and whooping cough. When children got sick in those days, however, it was often very bad news for them and for their families. Illnesses that we don't worry much about today made thousands of kids very sick, or even killed them, in the early part of the century.

Medical science has advanced in many important ways in the past 100 years. We asked the American Academy of Pediatrics, a group of physicians who specialize in treating children, to list some of the important advances that have changed children's health in the last 100 years. Their list of victories includes:

* Wiping out smallpox.

Thanks to a worldwide vaccination program, the illness called smallpox has disappeared. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), smallpox is the only disease that has ever been wiped out completely all over the world. The last case was reported in 1977. Before the vaccine, several million people around the world used to contract smallpox every year, and many of those people died.

* Protecting children from polio.

A doctor named Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine against poliomyelitis, a disease that used to cripple or kill thousands of children every year. The first polio vaccine became widely available in 1955. Within seven years the number of polio cases reported in the United States had fallen dramatically. In 1952, about 50,000 cases were reported. In 1962, only 1,000 new cases were reported.

Unlike smallpox, however, polio has not been completely wiped out everywhere in the world. Outbreaks have been reported in Chechnya, Pakistan, Zaire and Albania.

* Fighting infections with penicillin and antibiotics.

Penicillin has probably saved more lives than any other medicine in history. Called a "miracle drug" when it was introduced to the general public after World War II, penicillin is an antibiotic, which means it has the power to kill bacteria. Before penicillin, strep throat could worsen and become a fatal infection. Inner ear infections frequently led to deafness. After penicillin came into wide use, many other antibiotics were developed to fight bacterial infections.

Many other medical advances have happened in the 20th century, of course. Treatment for certain childhood cancers have become much more effective. Doctors know a whole lot more about how to take care of pregnant women so that babies get a healthy start. Because we know more about the benefits of good nutrition and exercise, people are living much longer, healthier lives than they did 100 years ago.

Of course, there are still terrible health problems left to solve. But in spite of these challenges, this has been an amazing century for health care.

"As we reach the end of an era, we appreciate how far we have come in improving public health," says physician Bernard Guyer of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, in Baltimore. "The outlook for children born in the new millennium promises to be bright."


This year's "Annual Summary of Vital Statistics," based on data from 1998, reveals that the U.S. death rate continues to decline. Bernard Guyer of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, lead author of the summary published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics, reports that the death rate for children in all age groups declined--but that unintentional injury was the leading cause of childhood deaths. Among teens aged 15-19, homicide was the second leading cause of death in 1998, numbering 2,216 nationwide. "We need to pay attention to areas where we can be doing more, such as preventing injuries and homicides," says Guyer. For information on preventable childhood injury and what you can do to ensure your child's safety, contact the National Safe Kids Campaign on the Web at www.safekids.org or by telephone at 202-662-0600. For information on immunizations and other preventive measures that parents can take, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics site at www.aap.org.


As the century draws to a close, we're interested in finding out about your hopes and fears for the 21st century. What do you think will change for the better for kids in the 21st century? What kinds of problems do you think 21st-century kids will face? Please write your ideas on a postcard along with your name, age and address. Send your postcard to: Catherine O'Neill Grace, How & Why, Health Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20071. Your ideas may be published in a future column. Happy 2000!