In 1925, sled dogs were sent on a 674-mile trip to procure antitoxins to fight an outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska. The successful sled teams and their dogs, especially a lead dog named Balto, became national heroes.
The serum run to Nome inspired the Iditarod, an annual sled dog race now taking place in Alaska.
MPR's medical analyst Dr. Jon Hallberg discussed the medical roots of the Iditarod with Tom Crann of All Things Considered. Hallberg is a physician in family medicine at the University of Minnesota and medical director of the Mill City Clinic.
Dr. Jon Hallberg: In 1925, a solo practitioner...in Nome, Alaska picked up a case of diphtheria in an Eskimo or Inuit boy. He knew that this population had not been exposed to diphtheria before, and that if it got out past these kids, it could be a major epidemic.
He only had five doses of antitoxin, which was the treatment at the time. And he knew he'd need more than that. But they were completely snowed in. There was no way to deliver the antitoxin to them. So, the ingenious idea came up of a dog sled relay team to get the antitoxins from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome.
Crann: Diphtheria, how bad is it, How contagious?
Hallberg: Diphtheria is a bacterial infection spread through droplets; coughing and sneezing. Children are particularly susceptible to this because they have not seen this before, whereas adults have potentially seen it.
This is something we do not see at all anymore. This is one of the great success stories of public health. Every time we get a tetanus shot, we get a diphtheria booster as well. It's a horrible disease, it's very contagious. And it can actually suffocate a person who's suffering from it.
Crann: What did our doctor, realizing all that in Nome, Alaska, actually do here?
Hallberg: They did the little they could do. There were not antibiotics, no ventilators; basically it's called supportive care. But the diphtheria antitoxin arrived in record time through these dog sleds and they were able to administer it to the kids who came down with the symptoms.
Crann: They basically wired the governor and said, 'I need this." And they figured out the best way to do this would be on a dog sled team.
Hallberg: It was amazing, and they had 20 different teams. Of course, Balto is the dog that's always associated with the dog sled.
Crann: He became a celebrity dog.
Hallberg: Absolutely. Eventually his body was stuffed. His statue stands to this day in Central Park. It's sort of a hero by chance, because he was actually the second-to-last dog sled team. But when they got to the final relay station there was no team there, so he had to lead the team into Nome, Alaska. That's how Balto became so famous. [He did] a double run.
Crann: In the end, did the antitoxin work? What was the effect in Nome?
Hallberg: We'll never know. The estimate was that it saved dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of lives.