Diphtheria strangles people to death!

The Span­ish name for diph­the­ria was “el garotil­lo,” the lit­tle stran­gler. The dis­ease caus­es a film called a pseudomem­brane to form in the throat. Many of its vic­tims sim­ply choke to death. Yet even if the patient was giv­en a tra­cheoto­my (a breath­ing hole cut in the throat), the patient could still die from the tox­ins released by the bac­te­ria that cause the dis­ease. Diph­the­ria is caused by a bac­teri­um called Corynebac­teri­um diph­the­ri­ae, but only if those bac­te­ria are infect­ed with a virus that car­ries the gene for the diph­the­ria tox­in.

At the start of the 20th cen­tu­ry, diph­the­ria was one of the 10 lead­ing caus­es of death in the Unit­ed States. When a diph­the­ria epi­dem­ic broke out in Alas­ka in the win­ter of 1925, the U.S. Postal Ser­vice recruit­ed teams of sled dogs to car­ry an emer­gency ship­ment of diph­the­ria anti­tox­in, which can be used to treat the dis­ease, from Anchor­age to Nome. It was called the Great Race of Mer­cy:

Since then, an effec­tive vac­cine to pre­vent the dis­ease was devel­oped. Thanks to vac­ci­na­tion, we have had only 1 con­firmed case in the Unit­ed States in the past 15 years. How­ev­er, the dis­ease con­tin­ues to cir­cu­late in oth­er coun­tries. After the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union, a seri­ous epi­dem­ic of diph­the­ria broke out, as a result of a drop in vac­ci­na­tion cov­er­age.

The diph­the­ria vac­cine is gen­er­al­ly includ­ed in the same shot with the vac­cines for tetanus and per­tus­sis. These are “killed” vac­cines that do not pro­vide life­long pro­tec­tion. As a result, peo­ple need to get boost­er shots every 10 years.

Pho­to by per­pet­u­alplum