Although researchers are still discussing the cause, the data is clear: over the past decade and a half, the incidence of childhood ear infections has declined by a precipitous 30 percent. Ear infections aren’t likely to disappear–the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 12 million children at or below age 6 will visit medical personnel for an ear infection–but the dramatic decline is still welcome news.
Harvard University researchers tentatively attribute the decreased incidence of ear infections to reduced exposure to adults’ cigarette smoke. The CDC figures on smoking show that secondhand smoke exposure occurred for 88 percent of non-smokers in the U.S. in 1990. By 2008, that figure fell to 40 percent, coinciding with the drop in ear infection rates.
Other doctors point to a vaccine that has been effective against bacteria that cause ear infections. As more children receive the vaccine, fewer reservoirs for infection–otherwise known as pre-schoolers–are left to infect other kids.
Still other researchers indicate an equally dramatic rise in the incidence of breast-feeding over the past fifteen years. Breast milk confers some of the mother’s immunity to her baby, making the child less susceptible to ear infections as well as other contagious diseases.
Whether the decline will continue is also a matter of scientific debate, but for the roughly five million children who will skip this painful childhood illness, any decline is a good one.