To be feared no longer - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
Among the most terrifying words that parents could hear, in past decades, was that of “diphtheria”. Known by various names, such as the strangling angel of children, diphtheria was a scourge that caused grief for many centuries. With the advent of antitoxins, incidences of diphtheria no longer cause the dread that they once did.
This disease was known by various names, but in 1826, Pierre Bretonneau coined the name “diphthérite” from the Greek word for leather, describing the deadly membrane that formed over the throat. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection caused by “corynebacterium diphtheria”, which is transmitted by close contact with an infected person through respiratory secretions that are spread through the air. The toxin produced by the bacteria causes a thick film to develop in the throat which makes it increasingly difficult to breathe. Children under the age of five and people over 40 are the most likely to succumb to diphtheria.
An antitoxin was developed in 1890 by Emil von Behring but widespread use, especially in rural areas, was slow in coming. Many home remedies for diphtheria were touted in local newspapers, such as hot malt vinegar in flannel wraps, baths with chamomile flowers and plenty of hot red wine. From the Huron News-Record of January, 1893, we learn that parents were advised to “close up a room, then take a tin cup with equal parts tar and turpentine and hold it over a flame. Have the little patient inhale the fumes and thus cough and spit out the membraneous matter. The diphtheria will then be gone.”
In 1887, local drugstores such as Combe’s in Clinton, Hamilton’s in Blyth and George Baker’s in Brussels were offering for sale Dierlamm’s Diphtheria and Croup Remedy. Rev. H. Dierlamm of Gowanstown claimed that “no child needs to suffer, let alone die, from these… diseases”.
But, indeed, as these “remedies” were ineffective, many children did die from the effects of diphtheria. It is devastating to a family when one member dies, so imagine the agony when several pass away within a short period of time, all from the same cause. The Beavers family near Kippen lost three family members, including the mother, in one week in 1881. A Goderich family by the name of McIntosh lost four children in 1888. Between Nov. 30, 1889 and Jan. 9, 1890, the schedule of deaths in Goderich recorded eight of 11 deaths that were the result of “diphtheria” and another two that were the result of “ulcerated throat”, which is a symptom of diphtheria. Of these deaths, three were from the William “Watty” Watson family. Violet, nine, died on Dec. 4 1889, Carrie, seven, died on Dec. 5, and Nellie, aged five, died on Jan. 20, 1890. The Samuel Gibson family lost George A., aged 14, Ethel, nine, and Florence, seven years old. Within a month and a half, six children of these two families were dead. The Medical Officer of Health of Huron, Dr. Alex Taylor, reported that use of water from an unsafe well was likely the cause of these deaths.
The Registrar General of Ontario released some interesting statistics about the year 1880. For instance, 23 per cent of Ontario deaths were of children under the age of one year. Diphtheria was the fourth-greatest cause of Ontario deaths, following consumption (tuberculosis), old age and infantile debility and inflammation of the lungs (likely pneumonia).
The diphtheria antitoxin was used as a cure for diphtheria, administered once symptoms had presented. Doctors the world over reported that the fatality rate of diphtheria was greatly decreased with the use of the antitoxin.
When cases of diphtheria were reported in communities, notice would be put in the local newspaper advising of a six-week quarantine for the household involved. In Brussels, in 1902, the household of John Long was in quarantine. Miss Winnie Long was reported as improving from her bout with the disease. By 1939, when a mild case of the disease was reported in Brussels, no quarantine was deemed necessary.
An alternate name for this column could have been Before the Age of Miracles, which was the title chosen by Dr. William Victor Johnston for his 1972 memoir of his medical practice in southern Bruce and northern Huron counties from 1924-1954. He recounted that two of his paternal aunts had died of diphtheria around 1880, but that during his years of practice, he only encountered three young people with the disease. With the help of antiserum, all three survived. Dr. Johnston always kept a supply of diphtheria antitoxin and antiserum in his office refrigerator. He saw advances such as antibiotics, immunizations and drug therapies as “miracles” that prevented much of the sufferings of the past.
Various reports throughout the 1900s chronicled the decline of the incidences of diphtheria in the region. The rates, reported in Canada, reflect the number of cases per 100,000 of population. In 1924, the rate was 100.13. Gradually the numbers decreased, but a spike was observed in 1938 with 33.01 cases per 100,000 people. In 1975, the rate was 0.5. Some recent years have seen no cases reported and as of 2019, the rate was 0.01.
In 2022, the Immunization of School Pupils Act and the Child Care and Early Years Act require that all children attending such institutions must receive certain vaccines, which are administered free of charge. Vaccines can start right with pregnancy. Babies receive vaccines to protect against diphtheria, as well as tetanus, pertussis, polio and haemophilus influenza type B starting at age two months. Routine vaccinations follow along at prescribed intervals.
Instead of a word that brings fear to families, today, diphtheria can be controlled and conquered.
Many thanks to Cheryl Cronin for her help with research for this column.