Diphtheria is an infectious disease affecting the nose, throat and sometimes the skin. It is caused by a bacterium which is spread by coughing and sneezing.
People usually become unwell two to three days after becoming infected. Symptoms range from a moderately sore throat to toxic life-threatening diphtheria of the larynx or of the lower and upper respiratory tracts.
Diphtheria is often complicated by damage to heart muscles, kidneys or peripheral nerves from the toxin produced by the bacteria. It is fatal in up to 10% of cases.
What treatments are available?
In mild cases, antibiotic treatment usually helps people get back on their feet quickly. However, in more serious infections, the lymph nodes in the throat may swell and a thick and sticky membrane develops in the throat making it difficult to breathe or swallow.
In these cases, immediate medical attention is required to protect the patient’s airway. Some patients may need to be intubated (have a tube put down their throat to help them breathe) or to have a tracheotomy (bypassing the obstruction in the throat by cutting a hole in the windpipe)
Is it preventable?
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the most effective way to prevent diphtheria is mass immunisation of the entire population. It is usually given as part of a combination vaccine, in conjunction with vaccines against pertussis and/or tetanus. Regular repeat doses (boosters) are recommended throughout life in order to be confident that the vaccine can be effective against the toxin which is its principle target.
Vaccination programmes have helped make diphtheria very rare in Europe meaning most parents and doctors will never see a single case. However, the bacterium has not been eradicated and there have been outbreaks in developed countries in addition to ongoing outbreaks in the world’s poorest countries.
In the developing world, diphtheria vaccination is among the priorities of international health agencies such as the WHO and UNICEF, as well as non-governmental organisations like the Gates Foundation and the GAVI Alliance.