These days, it seems impossible to turn on the news without hearing the latest updates on the H1N1 influenza epidemic. Along with frantic stories of new people infected and vaccine shortages, one also is confronted with vigorous debates over the efficacy and safety of the swine flu vaccine. The truth of the matter is that the Food and Drug Administration and Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, which oversees the creation of flu vaccines in this country, owe their very creation and existence to a cart horse named Jim.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, diphtheria was one of the world's most feared childhood diseases. Children infected with diphtheria had a 10 to 15% chance of dying from the disease. There was no vaccine against diphtheria until the 1920s, nor was there any treatment with antibiotics until the development of sulfa drugs in the 1930s. In the 1890s, German scientist Emil von Behring discovered a diphtheria antitoxin, which did not kill the diphtheria bacterium, but did neutralize the toxin released it, effectively neutralizing the disease. Behring discovered that this antitoxin was present in certain animals' blood, and that it could be made into a serum and injected into humans. His development of serum therapy against the disease earned him the first Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1901.
It turned out that horses were one of the animals that produced diphtheria antitoxin. Jim was one of the many horses called to duty producing serum that could save children's lives. Jim had begun his career as a milk wagon horse, but then went to live at a stable where, much like people today give blood or platelets, his blood could be periodically collected and refined to collect the diphtheria antitoxin. In time, Jim produced over 30 quarts of serum and without a doubt saved many lives.
On October 2, 1901, tragedy struck Jim. He had been infected with tetanus. No one knows how it happened; perhaps he had cut himself or stepped on a nail or had blood drawn with a needle that wasn't quite sterile. Whatever the origin, Jim began showing signs of the deadly disease, and the decision was made to have him humanely destroyed.
Then, tragedy struck a family in St. Louis. A little girl, who had come down with a case of diphtheria, suddenly came down with tetanus and died. It was discovered that she had been injected with serum from Jim that was dated September 30th. Further tests revealed that Jim's serum he had produced on September 30th already contained tetanus in its incubation phase. Had the serum been tested prior to use, the tetanus would have easily been discovered. To make things worse, some of the September 30th samples had been distributed in bottles labeled August 24th, while actual samples from the 24th were disease-free. In the end, 12 more children in St. Louis died as a result of the lack of care and control over serum samples taken from the horse.
The sad incident of Jim and contaminated anti-diphtheria serum directly led to the passage of the Biologics Control Act of 1902. This act established the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, which to this day oversees vaccine safety and selects which flu strains go into the creation of the annual flu vaccine.
How many of us today have grandparents or great-grandparents whose lives were saved through the help of medicine-producing horses like Jim?
How many lives have been saved in the past century because of the oversight of the FDA and the CBER, put into place because of Jim's misfortune?
Human history is written in hoof prints, more than we know. Our shared history has even been shared in our blood.