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