Diphtheria was once known as the strangling angel of children. What started off as a sore throat and cough would worsen until thick, grey membranes choked off the airways, leaving the sufferer gasping and struggling for air. Those who didn’t suffocate might be seized by paralysis or succumb to heart failure. It’s name evoked terror. A 19th century account from the Lancet describes it this way:
“When the surgeon is summoned, he finds the throat and mouth covered with yellow or brownish leathery exudation. Within a few hours a hoarse, barking cough, and a change in the tone of the voice are marked; oppression of the breathing supervenes; then paroxysms of suffocation, more and more frequent; the cough is stifled, and the voice also dies out.” 
Because of vaccines, few people know what diphtheria is. What was once so feared is now just a word in our history textbooks. We think it poses no threat to us.
We are wrong. Diphtheria is still out there and still capable of deadly epidemics. Even with the most advanced treatment, 5-10% of people who get the disease will die. If the victim is under 5, the death rate jumps to 20% or higher. All it takes is for enough parents to leave their children unvaccinated.
As of now, the number of diphtheria cases in the developed world is still close to zero. But other diseases are already making a comeback. Whooping cough and measles were once so common that few escaped childhood without becoming infected; untold numbers of parents watched as their little babies were seized by coughing fits, turning blue from lack of oxygen. Or watched as their children writhed with convulsions that left them permanently deaf. And now, because of declining vaccination rates, this horrible suffering remains with us still.
Vaccines are a victim of their own success. Because we don’t remember the terrible toll these diseases took, the very small risks of vaccination loom larger than the far greater but more remote risk of disease. But we should dread these diseases far more than we fear the vaccines.
Elanor got her final dose of the DTaP-Hib vaccine the other day. It was not easy to watch my baby cry from the needle. There is always that moment of doubt when I wonder what is being put into her and whether it will harm her. But then I remember diphtheria. And pertussis and measles and meningococcal disease. And I thank God for vaccines.
Protect your babies. Protect the millions of babies who benefit from herd immunity. Protect yourself. Vaccinate your children.
For more information:
 “Report of the Lancet Sanitary Commission on Diphtheria: Its History, Progress, Symptoms, and Treatment.,” The Lancet 73, no. 1850 (February 12, 1859): 169-170, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T1B-49HF759-4GB/2/07561f0d20eec18ff9b1ab19c39e8524. (h/t: History Compass Exchange)