Spina bifida, one of the most common major birth defects, can be prevented by taking folic acid before and during early pregnancy -- but many women don't take prenatal vitamins until they know they're pregnant. So, in 1998, the FDA started requiring that all enriched cereal-grain products (including wheat flour, bread, rolls, cornmeal, pasta, and rice) be fortified with folic acid to ensure that more women get this key B vitamin. Since then, the incidence of spina bifida has dropped by nearly 25 percent.
Babies, particularly premature ones, may develop jaundice, a condition in which the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow because of excess bilirubin, the yellow-colored pigment in blood. If severe jaundice goes untreated, it can cause permanent brain damage. In the 1950s, a biochemist put a tube of blood from a jaundiced baby near a window -- and found that sunlight lowered the levels of bilirubin in the blood. Around the same time, a nurse noticed sunlight seemed to improve jaundice. Soon, others figured out that the blue part of sunlight's visible spectrum forces a chemical reaction that breaks down bilirubin into a form the body can get rid of -- which led to the use of blue "phototherapy" lights to cure jaundice.
In the early days of car travel, parents would hang a canvas bag over a seat of their car to hold their infant -- putting a baby in danger if an accident occurred. In the 1960s, the co-owner of the kids' furniture store Guys and Dolls, in Aurora, Colorado, invented a child-safety seat, a metal contraption to hold a child securely between front bucket seats. Hundreds of children's lives are saved each year by today's more advanced car seats.
During the late 1700s, doctors realized that these women rarely caught the often fatal disease smallpox. The milkmaids were immune if they'd been infected by a related but milder form of the disease that affected cows, known as cowpox. An English doctor, Edward Jenner, successfully inoculated people with cowpox, laying the foundation for modern vaccination against many deadly diseases. In fact, the word vaccine comes from the Latin word for cow: vacca.
Lead-based paint tastes like candy (in ancient times, Romans unwisely sweetened wine with lead powder), which is why young children will eat chips of lead paint that flake off walls and windowsills. But lead poisoning can be devastating, causing brain damage, seizures, and even death. In 1978, lead was banned from household paints, and lead-free latex paint became the new standard. Soon afterward, lead was eliminated from gasoline. The results were dramatic: Since the 1970s, the average amount of lead in children's blood has fallen about 90 percent.
Thanks to inventors -- including Benjamin Franklin -- who experimented with refrigeration, we can safely store perishable foods such as milk, meat, fish, and produce. Before the first affordable electric household iceboxes were available in the late 1920s, Americans were more frequently sickened by typhoid fever and other food-related diseases because bacteria multiply in warm temperatures.
Almost a century ago, doctors realized that small toys could get stuck in a child's airway. Beginning in the 1970s, the government developed a "choke test cylinder" -- a plastic tube that is 1 1/4 inches wide and 2 1/4 inches long -- into which no toy, part of a toy, or piece that could be broken off from a toy should be able to fit completely if it's intended for kids under 3. Now used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, this cylinder has prevented many children from choking on toys.
Children used to die from pneumonia and even simple infections like strep throat before penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist who had been studying a fungus. But no one knew how to make large quantities of it; by 1942, U.S. scientists had only produced enough to treat one patient. Then researchers in Peoria discovered a moldy cantaloupe in the trash that contained a strain of fungus that made astronomical amounts of penicillin as it fermented the fruit. This process was industrialized and penicillin finally became available -- to treat World War II soldiers injured on D-day and, ultimately, children all around the world.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Parents magazine.
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