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Modern Medicine and the 20th Century Decline in Mortality: Evidence on the Impact of Sulfa Drugs

Seema Jayachandran, Adriana Lleras-Muney, Kimberly V. Smith

NBER Working Paper No. 15089
Issued in June 2009
NBER Program(s):Program on the Development of the American Economy, Health Care Program, Health Economics Program

This paper studies the contribution of sulfa drugs, a groundbreaking medical innovation in the 1930s, to declines in U.S. mortality. For several often-fatal infectious diseases, sulfa drugs represented the first effective treatment. Using time-series and difference-in-differences methods (with diseases unaffected by sulfa drugs as a comparison group), we find that sulfa drugs led to a 25 to 40 percent decline in maternal mortality, 17 to 36 percent decline in pneumonia mortality, and 52 to 67 percent decline in scarlet-fever mortality between 1937 and 1943. Altogether, they reduced mortality by 2 to 4 percent and increased life expectancy by 0.4 to 0.8 years. We also find that sulfa drugs benefited whites more than blacks.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w15089

Published: “Modern Medicine and the 20th-Century Decline in Mortality: Evidence on the Impact of Sulfa Drugs,” (with A. Lleras-Muney and K. Smith), American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2(2), April 2010, pp. 118-146

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