Diphtheria is caused by the toxin-producing bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheria. This germ is directly spread from the respiratory tract or rarely by contact with articles covered with respiratory secretions of infected persons. The incubation period, the time between contact and symptoms, is about 2 to 5 days and an untreated person with this infection is contagious for up to 2 weeks.

The symptoms of diphtheria include:

  • mild fever,
  • sore throat,
  • difficulty swallowing and
  • malaise.

It can progress to respiratory difficulty and even choking in young children. This latter problem is due to the recognizable and distinct feature of this infection; the formation of grayish white membrane on the tonsils and back of the throat a few days after the illness begins. If the Diphtheria toxin gets into the bloodstream the heart and nervous system can also be affected. The mortality rate is about 5% to 10%, so this is a potentially fatal illness.

Although there are antibiotic and anti-toxin treatments available, prevention by vaccination in the first place, is best. We should not take our ability to prevent this infection for granted; during the 1990s in the former Soviet Union due to political unrest, there was a vaccine shortage. As a result, there was a very large Diphtheria outbreak with 140,000 cases and 4,000 deaths reported. Once the vaccine supply was re-established, the rates dropped dramatically.

Prevention is best

Vaccines are given during the first few years of life. However, many people do not realize that they need to receive a Diphtheria and Tetanus booster shot(dT) regularly as adults even though they were vaccinated as children. Thanks to the availability of vaccines this potentially very serious infection are now very rare. However, you need to be up-to-date with your immunizations to be protected throughout your life. Unlike some other vaccines given during early childhood, the DT vaccine needs to be given every 10 years in adults.

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Pediatrician DR.PAUL Roumeliotis is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The information provided above is designed to be an educational aid only. It is not intended to replace the advice and care of your child’s physician, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect that your child has a medical condition always consult a physician.