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.
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.