The Iditarod: Commemorating the 1925 Emergency Delivery of Diphtheria Serum to Nome, Alaska
The Iditarod is run each year to commemorate the emergency delivery in 1925 of diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska. Nome in 1925 had changed from a booming, boisterous turn-of-the-century gold-rush camp into a small, quiet town of about 1,500 people. It was fifteen years since the end of the gold-rush, but Nome remained an important settlement on the Seward Peninsula.
Dr. Curtis Welch
The First Signs of an Epidemic It was a normal mid-January afternoon in Nome. Doctor Curtis Welch, physician and director of the US Public Health Service, was doing paperwork in his office at the Merchants and Miners Bank of Alaska building. An Eskimo man came into the office asking the doctor to come quickly, his two children were very sick. Dr. Welch raced to the Sand Spit Eskimo settlement, west of the Snake River on the fringes of Nome.
The children's temperatures were dangerously high, and their breathing was labored and shallow. Dr. Welch asked the mother how the children had become ill and what their symptoms had been. She replied that they had been sick for about three days. She thought it was a bad cold because their throats had become red and sore. Dr. Welch tried to examine their throats, but they could not open their mouths far enough for him to do so. He tried to comfort the mother and then returned to his office. Dr. Welch had wished many times that he had access to a good laboratory where he could send specimens for analysis. It was very strange. Children don't die of sore throats, but the two Eskimo children were dying. At one point he considered diphtheria but it was highly unlikely. He hadn't seen a case in northern Alaska in twenty years. Despite the doctor's efforts the Eskimo children died the following day.
A few days later, on January 21, Dr. Welch was called to the home of a white family to examine their six-year-old son. The child had been sick for two days with a sore throat. Dr. Welch examined the boy's throat and recognized immediately the dirty white patches of the diphtheria membrane. The doctor realized the terrible implications of this diagnosis. Diphtheria, left un-checked, would spread with devastating speed.
Dr. Welch met at once with Nome's mayor and city council. He told them of the imminent epidemic and stressed that some way must be found to get the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome within 2 weeks. The serum would check the spread of the disease and would help those already infected. His main concern was with the native population that had little or no immunity to white-man's diseases. A flu epidemic in 1919 had wiped out entire Eskimo villages.
300, 000 units of Diphtheria Serum were available but there was no way to get the life saving medicine to Nome in time, unless the sled dogs could do it. The rest is history:
This story is set in Canada but it so poignantly describes the horrors of an early day Diphtheria epidemic, it should be read by those wanting to understand life before modern medicine was available. It is one of the saddest stories I ever read and also one of the best.
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