What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria, Cornebacterium diphtheriae.

These bacteria are found in the nose, mouth and throat of an infected person. They are easily spread to others by coughing or sneezing droplets into the air.

The disease normally breaks out two to five days after exposure.

It can cause infection of the throat, which may lead to obstruction of breathing and, if untreated can be fatal.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

The first sign of diphtheria is usually a sore throat. There may also be difficulties with swallowing.

Other common symptoms are a low grade fever, nausea, vomiting, headache and a fast heart rate.

How serious is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a very serious illness. Of those who develop it, it will prove fatal to one in 15.

It can sometimes develop into toxic life-threatening diphtheria of the larynx or of the lower and upper respiratory tracts.

It is also often complicated by diphtheric myocarditis (toxic damage to heart muscles) and neuritis (toxic damage to peripheral nerves).

The toxin also gives rise to the characteristic grey membrane that forms over inflamed areas and may result in respiratory obstruction, particularly in small children.

Around 2-6 weeks after the initial symptoms, the effects of absorbed toxin may become apparent, leading to neurological (nerve) damage or to the inflammation of heart muscle.

How is diphtheria transmitted?

The disease is spread by close contact with infected people, so activities such as kissing or the sharing of eating or drinking implements are generally best avoided if there is known to be a risk.

How is diphtheria treated?

Treatment consists of immediate administration of diphtheria antitoxin and antibiotics. Antibiotic treatment usually renders patients non-infectious within 24 hours.

Isolation of cases is essential for diphtheric throat infections, along with proper disposal of all articles soiled by a patient.

How can diphtheria infection be prevented?

Diphtheria can be prevented by vaccination.

The diphtheria vaccine is given as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme. It forms part of the six-in-one vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, accellular pertussis, polio, Hib b, and hepatitis B ), which is given at two, four and six months of age.

How effective is the vaccine ?

The full course of this vaccine offers good protection against diphtheria for 95% of people.

It should be noted that those who have been vaccinated may still carry the bacteria in their throats. This means that while they are protected, they can still pass the bacteria on to people who have not been vaccinated, including babies.

Are there any side-effects from the vaccine?

Serious side-effects are rare. Of those vaccinated, one in 10 may experience redness and swelling at the site where the injection was given. They may also experience fever.