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Douglas A. Staples

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A Look Back at How Far We've Come

Posted: 06/08/2012 5:07 pm

Picture this: It's summer, it's hot, your children are home from school, they want to go outside, they want to play with their friends, they want to go to the swimming pool. Because you live in 2012, they can and they do. But it hasn't always been that way. Some folks can remember summers in the late 1940s. It was hot and kids had just as much energy, if not more. But you wouldn't dream of letting them go swimming, or even out of the house, because there was a highly contagious disease going around out there that could cause paralysis and even death. It was called polio.

The healthy world that our kids grow up in today is made possible, in part, by the March of Dimes. Created in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt, who had polio himself, the March of Dimes funded research for the vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin that would effectively end the polio epidemic in the United States, setting countless parents' minds at ease. There hasn't been a single new case of polio here in more than three decades.

For the March of Dimes, the polio vaccine was only the beginning of its work to help make kids and babies healthier. Flash forward with me now to the 1960s: You're expecting your first child when you develop a fever, swollen lymph nodes and a strange rash. You have rubella, commonly known as German measles. This isn't terribly surprising, as epidemics take place every six to nine years, but because you're pregnant, if you pass the disease to your unborn child, she could be born with severe birth defects. In 1969, Dr. Virginia Apgar and the March of Dimes led a rubella immunization program, with the goal of eradicating congenital rubella syndrome. Today, the U.S. can boast that it hasn't had a case of congenital rubella syndrome in 30 years.

The 1960s also bring a new president. John F. Kennedy is an inspiration to a generation. But there is a sadness in the Kennedy family. A baby son, born too soon and weighing only five pounds, dies from breathing problems. The world is left to wonder to this day what might have been if Patrick Bouvier Kennedy had lived.

Death was a tragic but common outcome of preterm births before the 1970s, when the March of Dimes called for a regionalized system of neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) to care for very sick babies all across the U.S. The breathing problems that claimed the Kennedy's son remained a challenge until the 1980s, when March of Dimes grantee T. Allen Merritt of the University of California San Diego Medical Center developed "surfactant therapy" to help the immature lungs of babies born too small or too soon. This treatment is now used in hospitals every day, and has saved the lives of tens of thousands of babies.

Advancements continued, and in 1993 March of Dimes launched the National Folic Acid Campaign to raise awareness of the importance of this B-vitamin in preventing serious birth defects of the brain and spine known as neural tube defects (NTDs), and to increase the number of childbearing-age women who consume a daily multivitamin with folic acid as part of a healthy diet. The foundation also lobbied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to add folic acid to the grain food supply, which was mandated in 1998. NTDs have declined by about one-third since food fortification.

Will all these accomplishments, it's no exaggeration to say that the March of Dimes touches the life of every baby in some way. This spring, in an effort to raise awareness and fund continued research breakthroughs, the March of Dimes launched a new campaign called "imbornto." Based on the premise that every baby is born to do something great, the campaign encourages consumers to shop, dine and donate at corporate partners across the nation during the time period between Mother's Day and Father's Day. After all, the best gift any parent can receive is a healthy baby.

As the organization enters its 75th year in 2013, funds are being allocated to research new treatments to prevent or halt preterm labor. And in communities across the country, more women are getting essential services and education to have the healthiest possible pregnancy.

Why the history lesson today? Because as parents in 2012, we're lucky. Our children will likely be healthier than any other from previous generations. And while most of the country is familiar with the name March of Dimes, few know the full scope of what this remarkable, uniquely American institution organization has done and is doing to create a healthier future for our children and our grandchildren. Just look how far we've come.

 
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