Balto with musher Gunnar Kaasen. National Institutes of Health - Nome, AK
The Dramatic Push to Immunize Children Against Diphtheria Got a Boost From a Sled Dog Named Balto
The story of Balto, the sled dog heading up the team that brought medicine 600 miles across snowy Alaska to the children of Nome in 1925, has filtered down to us as straight Disney: a kind, brave animal overcoming great odds to help kids. But people who followed Balto’s run via newspaper coverage (or went to see him appear at a department store opening or the Cleveland zoo after he “retired”) were also cheering for a miracle of modern science. Balto and his teammates were carrying a serum for the treatment of diphtheria, called antitoxin. This particular antitoxin came all the way from New York City, where it had been incubated in the bodies of horses residing in a city-run stable dedicated to the production of medicine.
This batch of antitoxin was not a vaccine—the children in Nome were already sick with diphtheria, the telltale gray pseudo-membranes growing over their throats. But the Balto story blew up around the time when New York City was about to start pressing for the use of a related preparation known as toxin-antitoxin to immunize as many children as possible. And so the Balto tale became a useful part of the first modern American vaccination drive—one that would establish the familiar media beats around the phenomenon for years to come.
The idea of a vaccine wasn’t totally new. Americans in the 1920s had a general understanding that they might need to get an emergency vaccination (whether that would be voluntary or forced upon them by authorities) in case of a local smallpox outbreak. And starting in 1911, American soldiers underwent mandatory anti-typhoid vaccination, familiarizing a new cohort of young people and their families with the concept.
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