This arti­cle is part 1 of 7 in the series Other Bad Bugs We Have Known

Editor’s note: Today we intro­duce a new guest con­trib­u­tor and a new series, “Other Bad Bugs We Have Known.” COVID-19 is bad, but it’s just the lat­est in a long line of “bad bugs” that have plagued humans since time immemo­r­i­al. In this series, David Musser takes a look at some of these and reminds us that we have the capac­i­ty to defeat, or at least tame them — if we just fol­low the sci­ence and ignore the ‘fake news.’ David is a res­i­dent of my native Wolfe County and a close per­son­al friend. New arti­cles in this series will drop week­ly.


What do you know about Diphtheria? Probably not much. And you don’t need to because you were vac­ci­nat­ed to pre­vent this ter­ri­ble dis­ease when you were a child. Therefore, you and every­one else who was vac­ci­nat­ed nev­er got the dis­ease. The vac­cine is required (man­dat­ed) to pro­tect your child and every­one else’s child before they start school.

Before the vac­cine, diph­the­ria was the lead­ing cause of child­hood death around the world.

Diphtheria is caused by a bac­teri­um that attacks the res­pi­ra­to­ry sys­tem. As it kills the cells in the throat, a thick mem­brane devel­ops that restricts breath­ing. Children — with small­er air­ways — died chok­ing, smoth­er­ing, and gasp­ing for air. Sometimes, as many as 40% of the chil­dren in an area would die this hor­ri­ble death.

Diphtheria first appeared in Colonial America in the 1700s. Noah Webster, of dic­tio­nary fame, called it a “plague among chil­dren.” He said that many fam­i­lies lost three and four chil­dren and many lost all. He also not­ed that the chil­dren who sur­vived gen­er­al­ly died younger than normal.

bad bugs

It might be instruc­tive to note that in our cur­rent pan­dem­ic, many of the anti-vaxxers refuse the COVID-19 vac­cine because they “don’t know what the vac­cine will do to them in the long term.” They don’t seem to remem­ber that the oth­er vac­cines they received did them no harm nor do they con­sid­er what actu­al­ly get­ting the dis­ease might do to them in the “long term.”

People soon real­ized that the dis­ease, which affect­ed both rich and poor, spread through cough­ing, sneez­ing, and even kiss­ing. It was called the “kiss of death” and par­ents were instruct­ed not to kiss their ail­ing children.

Scientists from around the world worked to solve the diph­the­ria epi­dem­ic. It was not until the 1800s that sci­en­tists began to under­stand that microor­gan­isms could cause a dis­ease. In the late 1800s, sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered the bac­teri­um respon­si­ble for diph­the­ria, gave it its name, and began try­ing to find a way to stop it.

Scientists learned that the prob­lem was a tox­in (poi­son) that the bac­te­ria pro­duced. Scientists then dis­cov­ered that a weak­ened brew of the bac­te­ria of anoth­er dead­ly dis­ease, tetanus, when inject­ed into an ani­mal, caused the pro­duc­tion of anti­bod­ies that pre­vent­ed the ani­mal from get­ting tetanus.

Furthermore, when blood tak­en from that ani­mal (usu­al­ly a horse) was processed into a serum and inject­ed into a dif­fer­ent ani­mal, the new ani­mal became immune to the dis­ease. This pro­ce­dure was adapt­ed to treat diph­the­ria in peo­ple, and it worked.  The first Nobel Prize in Medicine was award­ed for this great sci­en­tif­ic discovery.

The serum was not a vac­cine. It was an anti-tox­in that used the horse’s anti­bod­ies to fight the dis­ease. This usu­al­ly last­ed long enough for the patient to recov­er. A true vac­cine that stim­u­lates our body’s own defense, like we have today, would come a lit­tle later.

But the anti-tox­in was effec­tive, and most chil­dren lived. The whole world want­ed it. 

At first, only well-con­nect­ed doc­tors in major cities had access to the anti-tox­in. This meant that peo­ple of means could get it but the aver­age per­son could not. Americans back then thought it was nei­ther right nor fair that only the wealthy could get the health care to save their chil­dren. Soon, gov­ern­ment-fund­ed pub­lic health infra­struc­tures arose to dis­trib­ute the anti-tox­in to the gen­er­al public.

This was our nation’s first use of what we would now call social­ized med­i­cine. And it worked. In places with strong pub­lic health insti­tu­tions, the deaths from diph­the­ria fell dra­mat­i­cal­ly. People back then under­stood that when it comes to pub­lic health, we’re all in this together.

By the 1940s, America had a uni­ver­sal pro­gram of pub­lic health to get all chil­dren vac­ci­nat­ed against diph­the­ria as well as tetanus and whoop­ing cough. Other suc­cess­es would fol­low and the pub­lic was very grate­ful for the advances of sci­ence and medicine.

Back then, peo­ple were appar­ent­ly smarter than many peo­ple in our coun­try today. Folks saw that doc­tors and sci­en­tists had dis­cov­ered a way to pre­vent a dread­ful dis­ease and they eager­ly want­ed to use it. They would not have lis­tened to politi­cians — who knew noth­ing of sci­ence or med­i­cine — argue with the doc­tors and sci­en­tists who had found a solu­tion. They would not have allowed pol­i­tics to get in the way of sav­ing lives.

Fortunately, they didn’t have social media to spread mis­in­for­ma­tion and ridicu­lous con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. They didn’t have mean-spir­it­ed radio and TV per­son­al­i­ties whose only job is to increase rat­ings by sell­ing lies, doubt, and dis­tor­tion. Today, many peo­ple believe these sell­ers of fear, hate, and polit­i­cal divide. The result is the unnec­es­sary death of thou­sands, pos­si­bly hun­dreds of thou­sands, of inno­cent people.

People back then used their com­mon sense. If some­thing worked, they used it. They want­ed facts, not alter­na­tive facts. They were inter­est­ed in results, not polit­i­cal divide. Today, instead of prais­ing the sci­en­tists for devel­op­ing an effec­tive vac­cine and thank­ing our gov­ern­ment for sup­ply­ing it—for free—too many peo­ple won’t take the vac­cine. They say, “I’m not going to let the gov­ern­ment tell me what to do.” These peo­ple have turned their com­mon sense over to forces that do not have their, or their children’s, or their country’s best inter­est in mind. And thou­sands of Americans have died because of it.

Use your com­mon sense. Get vaccinated.

  • David made scaled-down, tra­di­tion­al Appalachian musi­cal instru­ments for chil­dren. Thousands of ele­men­tary stu­dents from across the state enjoyed his hands-on Appalachian music and her­itage pro­gram. He also worked with folks from six coun­ties for the cre­ation of the Appalachian Heritage Monument—a world-class venue that would rebrand Eastern Kentucky in a pos­i­tive light. (Still work­ing on it.) David lives in Valeria, Wolfe County, Kentucky.

Series NavigationTetanus and Whooping Cough »