Diphtheria is a vaccine preventable illness, so no American child should have it. Unfortunately, diphtheria is still around causing outbreaks whenever “anything disrupts routine vaccination,” says Kristie Clark, a CDC epidemiologist. There were at least 9,000 cases globally in 2017.

What is diphtheria?

Originally called “throat distemper,” diphtheria is an illness caused by the bacterium corynebacterium diphtheria. It produces a toxin that scars and builds up in the throat, slowly choking its victims to death.

The danger of diphtheria
Prior to the advent of vaccines, diphtheria was as close as you could come to a real life boogeyman for children, with outbreaks sometimes snatching away as many as 3 out of every 4 children it infected. Its ravages helped contribute to the belief that childhood was not a safe time, and could make something as innocent as a parent’s kiss fatal.

German scientist Emil von Behrubg describes rows of whaling children in hospitals, suffering from “gurgling coughs foretelling suffocation.” Children with the condition slowly suffocate to death, unable to breathe from the gray-white plague building up in their throat. A Canadian doctor describes in a 1927 journal article the agony of having to watch a “beautiful girl of five or six years” choke to death. (Klass, 2021)

Doctors resorted to tracheotomies (cutting open the throat) in a desperate attempt to save children; procedures which were almost always unsuccessful. One of the diseases most famous victims was Ruth Cleveland, daughter of president Grover Cleveland and his wife, Frances, who was affectionately known to the public as “Baby Ruth.” She died from diphtheria at the age of 12, despite receiving the antitoxin the day before.

The disease is still a killer. Though modern medicine has pushed the mortality rate down to 5-10% (still high for an infectious disease), it can be much higher in places of the globe lacking sophisticated medical care.

The diphtheria vaccine

Today’s DtaP vaccine contains a combination of inactivated diphtheria and tetanus toxins, along with proteins from pertussis added. It contains no actual bacterial cells. The CDC recommends children get their DtaP shots at 2, 4, 6 and 15 months, and between 4 and 6 years old. A booster shot at age 11 or 12 involves a different vaccine called Tdap, designed for older people, and can be given once every 10 years.

Fun fact: Delivery of life-saving DTaP vaccines in Alaska by Alaskan sled dogs was dramatized in the 2019 Disney movie Togo.

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