Science Conquered Diphtheria, the Plague Among Children

Inoculated horse, still the source of life-saving antitoxin

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, diphtheria challenged doctors with the terrible specter of children choked, smothered, snuffed out. It brought terror to the richest and the poorest, blighting famous families and anonymous ones…

Then, toward the end of the 19th century, scientists started identifying the bacteria that caused this human misery—giving the pathogen a name and delineating its poisonous weapon. It was diphtheria that led researchers around the world to unite in an unprecedented effort, using laboratory investigations to come up with new treatments for struggling, suffocating victims…

In the 1980s…there were only a few cases a year in the United States. Since 2000, there have been only six reported cases in the U.S….the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted some 8,800 cases reported overseas in 2017. In places where people aren’t getting vaccinated, or are slacking off on booster shots, diphtheria is finding its way back. And the standard treatment, little changed in more than a century, is in short supply.

The author takes the tale back to the beginning of research that led to discovery of the bacillus and, eventually, to treatment by antitoxin – and then to a vaccine.

I’ve posted before of children in my neighborhood getting together in spring to figure out who died over winter. Most often, those deaths were from diphtheria. And when the vaccine came to my elementary school for the first time, I was in that first group to be vaccinated. I was 7.

Only 1 student refused. His family were members of some religion that rejected vaccination. I’ve never missed one offered. Even volunteering for a few that were still experimental. Worth it to help others.

One thought on “Science Conquered Diphtheria, the Plague Among Children

  1. p/s says:

    “On June 8, 1953, Martha Lillard celebrated her fifth birthday with a party at an amusement park in Oklahoma. A little over a week later, she woke up with a sore throat and a pain in her neck. Her family took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with polio.
    She spent six months in the hospital, where she was put in a giant metal tank — a ventilator informally called an iron lung — to help her breathe. To this day, Lillard is one of the last people in the U.S. who still depends on an iron lung to survive.
    Polio is a potentially life-threatening disease, once among the world’s most feared. In the late 1940s, polio disabled an average of 35,000 people in the U.S. every year.
    A polio vaccine became widely available in 1955, and millions of Americans got vaccinated. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease has been nearly eradicated — the World Health Organization documented only 175 cases of wild polio in 2019. It remains endemic in only Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

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