Explainer: What is diphtheria?

Explainer: What is diphtheria?

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Given the global surge in diphtheria incidence, it’s important to focus on vaccination against this potentially serious bacterial infection that primarily affects the mucous membranes of the throat and nose.  

By Florica Brahma

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning regarding the outbreak of diphtheria, a potentially serious bacterial infection that primarily affects the mucous membranes of the throat and nose. Despite medical advancements, diphtheria remains a concern in certain parts of the world, emphasising the importance of understanding its causes, symptoms, and prevention strategies. 

The bacterium responsible for diphtheria, corynebacterium diphtheriae, produces a toxin that can lead to severe complications, if left untreated. The failure to receive childhood immunisation serves as a predisposing factor for this disease, which is exclusive to humans and resides in the upper respiratory tract. 

How it spreads 

Diphtheria is typically spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread through direct contact with objects or secretions that have been in contact with an infected person or carrier. Individuals who carry the bacterium but do not exhibit symptoms (carriers) can also spread the disease. 

Once inside the host, the bacteria typically settle in the upper respiratory tract and produce a toxin that can cause tissue damage and inflammation. This toxin can also spread through the bloodstream, affecting other organs and systems in the body. 

The symptoms of diphtheria usually appear within two to five days after exposure to the bacterium. This includes sore throat, fever, possibility of enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, bluish skin colour, extreme fatigue and weakness. In severe cases, diphtheria can lead to complications such as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), neuropathy (nerve damage), and respiratory failure.

Vaccination works 

Vaccination is the most effective strategy against diphtheria. The diphtheria vaccine is typically administered as part of the combination vaccine known as the DTaP vaccine, which also protects against tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). DTaP vaccine is recommended during infancy and childhood, followed by booster shots in adolescence and adulthood, based on doctor’s advice. 

In addition to vaccination, practising good hygiene can also help prevent the spread of diphtheria. This includes frequent handwashing with soap and water, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or elbow, and avoiding close contact with individuals who are sick.

In case you have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with diphtheria, it’s prudent to consult with a doctor immediately. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to prevent the onset of illness.

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