Diphtheria is a bacterial infection caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae, transmitted from person to person through close physical and respiratory contact. It can cause infection of the nasopharynx, which may lead to breathing difficulties and death.

Image/Robert Herriman
Image/Robert Herriman

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),  The United States recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria in 1921 and 15,520 deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported nearly 100,000 cases globally in 1980. In 2014, 7,321 cases of diphtheria were reported to the World Health Organization, but there are likely many more cases.

Clearly, diphtheria is a devastating disease with a high mortality rate. Thanks to vaccinations, introduced in 1923, there were less than five cases of diphtheria in the United States reported to CDC during the past decade.

How were things 125 years ago prior to vaccinations and antibiotics and what did health authorities say about diphtheria?

In the 11th Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Indiana, published in 1893, the following was noted:

During the period of 11 years since the organization of the State Board of Health, 3727 deaths were reported as having been caused by diphtheria, nearly 9 1/2 times as many more than from smallpox (379).

Diphtheria is now recognized as a contagious, infectious, communicable and preventable disease, whose contagion has the power of clinging to clothing, furniture, dishes, books, papers and in fact everything that it comes in contact with.

According to a report of a committee of the American Public Health Association, submitted to that body at its meeting held in Charleston, S.C., 1890, the mortality rate from this disease, in the United States and Canada, was fixed at forty percent. This conclusion was reached after a most thorough and exhaustive investigation.

If you will make a careful examination you will be convinced that the mortality from this disease is as great as that from small-pox, yellow fever or cholera. Jacobi, of New York, is authority for the statement that “in some epidemic it reaches 95 percent”.

Now, gentlemen, here is a disease that is attended with a terrible death rate and is almost constantly with you, recognized, as we said before, as a contagious, infectious communicable and preventable disease.

What are you doing as health officers to exterminate it prevent its destruction of human life?

Do you quarantine every case and all that have been exposed to the disease?

Do you recognize the fact that the mildest case may communicate the disease in its most virulent form?

After recovery or death of the patient, do you see t it that the premises are disinfected and fumigated in accordance with the most improved methods?

In case of death, do you see to it that the funeral is strictly private?

If you do not, you are not doing your duty as health officers, and should surrender your position to others who have the intelligence and moral courage to enforce the health laws and regulations of the State.

Until the time comes when the people can be educated up to the realization of the fact that this is both a contagious and a preventable disease, and that by proper precautions being taken it can be stamped out, we will have it with us annually, carrying hundreds of victims to untimely graves.