Background and methods: Pneumonia remains an important cause of childhood deaths throughout the world, but in developed countries, the mortality rate is decreasing. We reviewed death records for children in the United States from 1939 through 1996. A plot of the annual rates of change in the number of deaths from pneumonia was used to generate hypotheses about the influence of various events and interventions. We used data from the National Hospital Discharge Survey, the Medicaid program, and published reports to test these hypotheses.
Results: During the 58-year study period, the number of children who died from pneumonia declined by 97 percent, from 24,637 in 1939 to 800 in 1996. During the same period, the rate of mortality from other causes declined by 82 percent. There were steep declines in the mortality rates for pneumonia from 1944 to 1950, although the rate increased among older children in 1957, and there were sustained declines in all age groups from 1966 to 1982. From 1966 to 1982, the mortality declined by an average of 13.0 percent annually, and these decreases coincided with increases in the proportion of poor children covered by Medicaid, increases in rates of hospitalization for pneumonia, a narrowing of the gap between the mortality rate for black children and the rate for white children, and a convergence between the mortality rate in the South and the rates in the other three census regions.
Conclusions: Since 1939, the rate of mortality from pneumonia in children in the United States has declined markedly. We hypothesize that the steep declines in the late 1940s are attributable to the use of penicillin, that the peak in 1957 was due to the influenza A pandemic, and that the sustained decline from 1966 through 1982 may be attributable in part to improved access to medical care for poor children.