Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Diphtheria and Other Successful Vaccines

Great article in the October edition of the Smithsonian about the devastating effects of diphtheria and the process and eventual development of a vaccine for this deadly disease.  Without going into too much detail, diphtheria appeared in America in the early 18th century and spread throughout the colonies and then southward, almost stripping towns and cities of its children.  Many families lost multiple children, and even for those who survived, there were lasting effects that caused the early death of multiple generations of Americans, as if the disease weakened the body making it more susceptible to future immune system threats.

It was the leading cause of death among children in the world for quite a while as the death rate could be as high as 20% in some areas.  An interesting site to visit for more detailed info about the history of this disease and a timeline for its identification and eventual decline through the use of (primarily) vaccines can be found at:


The actual treatment for diphtheria which was developed before the vaccine became widely available, requires the use of horses, which are injected with a weakened version of the toxin which makes diphtheria deadly.  This causes the animals' immune system to recognize and fight the invading bacteria. When the blood cells from these immunized animals' blood is removed, the remaining serum can be injected into other animals giving them immunity.  Eventually that process was applied to humans, resulting in the first ever Nobel Prize in Medicine being given to this medical innovator.  Interestingly, that is still the primary source for the serum to combat someone infected today. Fortunately, research is ongoing to eliminate the necessity of using animals, and worldwide cases of diphtheria are rare.

Smallpox is another example of a deadly disease that killed millions for centuries, only to be virtually wiped out through the development of a vaccine.  And Polio, which killed upwards of 500,000 people worldwide for 20 plus years, has also been virtually eradicated since the development of the Salk sugar cube then vaccine.  

And then there are the less deadly diseases that cause more discomfort than death, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc, but for which vaccines have been developed to reduce the likelihood of experiencing those maladies.  For those who believe that it is best to make children tough by letting them get sick, or those that believe that if the creator wished their child to die from one of these childhood diseases, well, his will be done, there is some resistance to getting these vaccines, but for most people, one of the rites of passage for children is the series of needles that allow them to navigate the ups and downs of early life without worrying about dying from a preventable disease.  It is these and all those vaccines listed above, that make the composition of local graveyards lean more towards the oldest of our citizens, as opposed to those from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries that include far too many headstones detailing life spans less than 10 years old. 

Even the flu, which still kills tens of thousand Americans each year, is less deadly than years past due to the yearly flu shot.  It is one of those great paradoxes that a vaccine that will reduce the chances of a person getting the flu, getting seriously ill, being hospitalized or die, is only a yearly routine for barely half of all Americans over 6 months of age.  The good news is that almost 7 out of 10 people age 65 or over were vaccinated for the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season and another 50% of those aged 50-64.  One can only hope that that percentage will continue to rise, if even by only a few percentage points, as it has over the last decade. 

Which, of course, brings us to the Covid-19 vaccine.  My gut feeling is that history will hail it as one of the greatest medical efforts in history.  Perhaps even the former president will be mentioned as having encouraged its development, despite his selfish motives for reelection. We will most likely pass the 5 million mark in worldwide deaths by month's end, but the application of the mRNA process to develop, manufacture and distribute this vaccine within 18 months of the identification of the disease will undoubtedly be credited with saving millions of lives, not to mention the world economy which has been recovering, albeit slowly, from the devastating effects of a virtual global lock down.  While we still had to make the calculation of which is worse, loss of economic stability or millions of lives, we've had a powerful weapon at our disposal which has allowed us to sacrifice far less people in the name of the economy.

While we still face the question, how many children (and the teachers, custodial staff, administrators, nurses, etc who operate the learning institutions which they attend), are we willing to sacrifice to the cause of  returning to normalcy, not to mention the misguided belief of some who equate wearing a mask to losing one's freedom, I expect that public health decisions will eventually win the day when vaccines are available to all school age children, and deaths among our children will remain below the acceptable level.  

Make no mistake, that is what we are debating, how many children's deaths to tolerate.  I wish all those who gain You Tube fame through their school board rants, or tik-tok videos, or facebook viral opinions, would preface their anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric with the number of children they are willing to sacrifice in the name of their personal gripe against vaccines, masks, the government, the president, etc.  At least we would know that they understand that resistance to common sense health measures will kill children.  

Thankfully, in the end, we will experience a number far below the level of child deaths that were experienced for most of America's history before the development of vaccines, sparing the children of all of us, even those whose efforts to discourage vaccines is ongoing.

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