In the 18th and 19th centuries, children died of diphtheria in astonishing numbers. Adults contracted the disease, too, but were less likely to die. The name of the disease is based on the Greek word for leather, because those infected developed a tough leathery buildup of dead cells in the throat that obstructed swallowing and ultimately, breathing. There was nothing anyone could do about the disease, until 1883 when a unique bacterium (Corynebacterium diphtheriae) was discovered in a victim’s throat tissue. That discovery began a fascinating chain of event involving doctors and scientists living in far-flung nations. Years later, another doctor found that the bacterium did not cause the disease, but it produced a poison that did. Others used the toxin to create antibodies against the toxin, a truck learned from research on tetanus. This antitoxin would not stimulate a victim’s immune system, but it could treat diphtheria, which is why Balto and many other sled dogs ran through Alaska in 1925. Eventually, a vaccine was developed by refining the antitoxin to stimulate a child’s own immune system.
Today, diphtheria is almost unknown in the US, with only six cases recorded since 2000. There are only a few thousand cases worldwide every year, mainly in countries where the vaccine program has been disrupted. Read the amazing story of the 40-or-so year period when the race to defeat diphtheria brought the world of medical science together at Smithsonian.
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