Fact Sheet Expert Opinion First Person Photo Essay




The Disease:

Diphtheria, a deadly childhood scourge during the last century, has been dramatically reduced today due to immunization. Dubbed by the Greeks diphtheria, or “leather hide,” the disease is caused by a bacterium, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which attacks the throat lining. The bacteria destroy the tissue, leaving a thick, gray membrane over the throat, which can make it difficult for a child to swallow or breathe. Left untreated, the bacteria produces a toxin (poison) that can attack the heart muscle or nervous system. In tropical areas, the skin can be affected, resulting in a rash or ulcers.

The disease is easily transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes, sending bacteria-laden droplets into the air that can enter the nose or throat of those nearby. Often, diphtheria spreads most rapidly among those living in cramped living quarters. It also occurs more frequently during winter months. There have been recent epidemics of the disease in Russia and other Eastern European countries, and some of those affected have been adults.


Symptoms generally occur between two and six days after a child has been exposed to the disease. Initial symptoms can include a fever, sore throat, headache, and swollen glands.  These can be followed by difficulties in breathing and swallowing, and vomiting.


The diphtheria vaccine utilizes an inactivated diphtheria toxin that enables the body to neutralize the poison.  It is routinely given to children in combination with vaccines for tetanus and pertussis.  The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that this combination diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine (DTP) be given at six weeks, 10 weeks and 14 weeks.  However, because this may not confer lifelong immunity, booster shots of the vaccine are recommended every 10 years.  Likewise, those who suffer from the disease will not necessarily develop immunity and thus should also be immunized against it.


By 2010, ensure routine childhood immunization of children under one year of age at 90 per cent nationally, with at least 80 per cent coverage in every district or equivalent administrative unit.

Sources: CDC, WHO