Second case of diphtheria emerges in NSW, Australia
Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial infection caused by toxin-producing strains of Corynebacterium diphtheriae and Corynebacterium ulcerans. In some cases, it can be life-threatening.
Diphtheria was a common cause of death in children until the 1940s, but it occurs mainly in countries with low vaccination levels. Cases in Australia are now rare due to high vaccination rates.
How is it distributed?
Diphtheria bacteria can live in the mouth, nose, throat, or skin of infected individuals and are usually spread through respiratory droplets after an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Sometimes the bacteria spreads through close contact with secretions from the mouth, nose, throat, or skin of an infected person, but this is rare.
Without antibiotic treatment, people with diphtheria are contagious for up to 4 weeks from when their symptoms first start. Some people are contagious for longer.
A second and less common form of diphtheria, Corynebacterium ulcerans infection, occurs occasionally, sometimes after consumption of unpasteurized milk or contact with animals.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms usually start two to five days, but sometimes don’t start until 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria.
Symptoms depend on the site of infection, with the most severe form of diphtheria affecting the throat and tonsils.
The first symptoms are usually sore throat, loss of appetite and low-grade fever. Within 2-3 days, a gray-white membrane forms over the throat and tonsils that can make swallowing and breathing difficult. The infection can also cause the neck to swell.
The toxin produced by diphtheria bacteria can also cause inflammation of the heart muscle and nerves, which can be fatal in 5-10 percent of infected people.
Sometimes diphtheria can cause small skin sores that form larger sores, usually on the legs. This form of diphtheria is more common in the tropics.
Disease can also occur in non-toxin-producing strains of the diphtheria bacteria, but the disease is generally milder.
How is it diagnosed?
If you have symptoms of diphtheria, you should see a doctor immediately. The doctor may notice a gray-white membrane in your throat and if diphtheria is suspected. a throat swab is taken and sent to a lab. Special lab tests are needed to detect and diagnose diphtheria.
How is it treated?
Diphtheria infection is treated with antibiotics and antitoxin to stop the infection developing and may also require a course of vaccination if not immunized. Some people may need hospitalization.