Diphtheria is an infectious disease spreading from person to person by respiratory droplets from the throat through coughing and sneezing.
The disease normally breaks out 2-5 days after infection.
Diphtheria usually affects the tonsils, pharynx, larynx and occasionally the skin. Symptoms range from a moderately sore throat to toxic life-threatening diphtheria of the larynx or of the lower and upper respiratory tracts. Diphtheria is often complicated by diphtheric myocarditis (toxic damage to heart muscles) and 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 2-3 weeks.
Treatment consists of immediate administration of diphtheria antitoxin and antibiotics. Antibiotic treatment usually renders patients non-infectious within 24 hours.
Unless immunized, children and adults may repeatedly be infected with the disease.
The most effective method is mass immunisation of the entire population.
Those individuals who are in close contact with a sick person should be identified and treated immediately with antibiotics. The disease should be diagnosed early and proper case management procedures (immediate treatment and hospitalisation) should be followed in order to prevent complications and death.
In the early 1900s, diphtheria caused more deaths in Australia than any other infectious disease, but increasing use of diphtheria vaccines since World War II has led to its virtual disappearance. It is important for Australians to retain high levels of immunity through high vaccination coverage.