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7 big advances in children's health

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Millions of children in the U.S. and around the world are alive and thriving today because of medical research that led to prevention strategies, treatments or cures for once-common causes of childhood illness and death.

"Today, we often take these research discoveries for granted," said Dr. Tina Cheng, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Pediatric Research. But because of these "incredible discoveries," she said, "American children are healthier and safer today and will grow up to be healthier adults."

The American Academy of Pediatrics is highlighting some of the most significant medical discoveries of the past 40 years at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual conference in San Diego.

Click through for stories of 7 medical breakthroughs that are saving kids' lives every day.

Immunizations

Vaccines prevent thousands of childhood deaths. Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Number one on the list of life-savers: immunizations.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report focuses on breakthroughs made over the past 40 years, including vaccines for rotavirus -- a leading cause of severe diarrhea and dehydration -- and Hib, or Haemophilus influenzae type b, a bacteria that causes pneumonia, meningitis and other frequently deadly infections in children.

"When I was training to become a pediatrician, about 20,000 U.S. children had [Hib] infections every year and up to 1,200 children died," said the AAP's Dr. Tina Cheng. "Today, because of the vaccine, current doctors in training -- including my interns -- have never seen a case." Hib infections in the U.S. have dropped 99 percent.

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Helping preemies breathe

Kingston McKinnon weighed just 1 pound, 3.5 ounces when he was born in 2011. Surfactant therapy helped him survive. Courtesy of Arica McKinnon

One in 9 newborns in the U.S. is born prematurely, about 450,000 children a year. But thanks to medical research, the survival rate for preemies has improved dramatically over the last few decades.

Three-year-old Kingston McKinnon is one of those success stories. He was born at 23 weeks, weighing just 1 pound, 3.5 ounces. "There aren't many of those babies who survive," his mother Arica McKinnon told CBS News.

One of the biggest threats faced by a baby that small is Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS), which develops when a baby's immature lungs are unable to produce enough of compound known as surfactant needed to help them breathe. The development in the 1980s of a way to supplement surfactant helped lead to a 41 percent decline in deaths from RDS.

"We were blessed to get that treatment for our son," McKinnon said. Today, the proud mom says Kingston is doing "awesome" -- he's happy and healthy and shows little sign of his precarious start in life.

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Kingston McKinnon is now a healthy 3-year-old. / COURTESY OF ARICA MCKINNON Courtesy of Arica McKinnon

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Reducing SIDS

The "Back-to-Sleep" campaign helped cut the number of SIDS deaths in half. istockphoto

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, is as mysterious as it is tragic. SIDS, also known as crib death, occurs for unknown reasons in children under the age of 1 year old who go to sleep and never wake up.

Nearly 4,700 U.S. infants died from SIDS in 1993. But then researchers discovered it was far less likely to happen in babies who were put to sleep on their backs rather than their tummies. A public awareness campaign encouraging parents to remember "Back-to-Sleep" helped cut the number of SIDS deaths in half.

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Childhood cancer

The survival rate for acute lymphocytic leukemia has improved dramatically. istockphoto

Acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, is the most common form of childhood cancer, and a generation ago it was often a death sentence. In 1975, only about a quarter of patients aged 15 to 19 survived more than 5 years.

Since then, however, the development of medications has boosted the survival rate dramatically. "Today, more than 90 percent of children with this disease survive," said Dr. Tina Cheng of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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Reducing HIV

Antiretroviral drugs help prevent the spread of HIV from mother to baby. istockphoto

At the peak of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 90s, as many as 1,650 infants a year were born with HIV transmitted from their mothers in the womb. Women with HIV passed it along to their babies about 40 percent of the time.

The development of antiretroviral drugs in the 1990s were a major turning point. Today, the drug regimen has reduced the rate of mother-to-infant HIV transmission so much that these cases are very rare.

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Chronic diseases

Life expectancy has more than doubled in people with sickle cell disease. istockphoto

Pediatricians say one of the biggest breakthroughs of the last 40 years has been progress in treating chronic diseases, and they single out sickle cell anemia as a case in point.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited disorder that causes a person's red blood cells to be misshapen and clump together in clots. The condition affects up to 100,000 Americans and causes extreme pain, infection, organ damage and strokes.

Forty years ago, sickle cell patients died at an average age of just 14, but a range of modern medications and treatments like bone marrow transplants now extend life expectancy to age 40.

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Buckling up

Car seats are a major life-saver. JoeLu

Car accidents are a leading cause of death in children, but many lives are being saved due to research and education on safety restraints for kids.

In children less than 1 year old, car seats reduce death in accidents by 71 percent. In children 4 to 8 years old, booster seats reduce the risk by 45 percent. For older children and adults, seat belts cut the risk of death or serious injury in half.

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