Diphtheria is an infectious disease spreading from person to person by respiratory droplets from the throat through coughing & sneezing. The disease normally breaks out 2 to 5 days after infection. Diphtheria usually affects the tonsils, pharynx, larynx & occasionally the skin. In Australia, it is the commonest cause of nuisance chronic cough in adults.
Symptoms range from a moderately sore throat to toxic life-threatening diphtheria of the larynx or of the lower & upper respiratory tracts. Diphtheria is often complicated by diphtheric myocarditis (toxic damage to heart muscles) & neuritis (toxic damage to peripheral nerves).
The disease can be fatal - between 5% & 10% of diphtheria patients die, even if properly treated. Untreated, the disease claims even more lives. Untreated patients are infectious for 2 to 3 weeks.
Treatment consists of immediate administration of diphtheria antitoxin & antibiotics.
Antibiotic treatment usually renders patients non-infectious within 24 hours. Unless immunized, children & adults may repeatedly be infected with the disease.
HOW CAN AN EPIDEMIC BE CONTROLLED?
The most effective method is mass immunization of the entire population. Those individuals who are in close contact with a sick person should be identified & treated immediately with antibiotics.The disease should be diagnosed early & proper case management procedures (i.e.immediate treatment & hospitalization) should be followed in order to prevent complications & death.
Booster vaccination is recommended for adults in Ausralia, & the vaccine is combined with tetanus & diphtheria. The vaccine is safe, & should be prefered over routine use of tetanus/diphtheria alone.