Diphtheria is a potentially fatal bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Coryenbacterium diphtheriae. This bacterium produces a poison (toxin) that can damage human tissue. The bacteria can be transmitted by coughing or by touching. The incubation period is usually two to five days, but never longer than a week. Bacteria that are related to the Coryenbacterium diphtheriae can also cause diphtheria as they produce a similar toxin. Bacteria such as Corynebacterium ulcerans and Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis produce a similar toxin.
How do you catch it?
Diphtheria can be transmitted from person to person. The diphtheria bacterium is usually transmitted through the air, for example through coughing and sneezing. However, infection may also be spread through touching or kissing an infected person. Furthermore, the bacteria can spread through animals and the drinking of unpasteurised milk. Diphtheria can be treated with antibiotics, and with antitoxin medicine. Existing body tissue damage cannot be undone and is likely to leave scars.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms differ, depending on the spot (or body part) that is infected. The bacterium damages tissue in the infected area. If the diphtheria bacterium infects the nose, the symptoms are often mild and no complications occur. If the airways are infected, the disease can be much more serious: high fever and shortness of breath may occur. An estimated 10 to 25% of people who get the infection suffer from damage to the heart muscle, caused by the toxin the bacterium produces. This toxin can also affect the nervous system and cause severe breathing difficulties. Complications include swallowing difficulties, paralysis of the eye muscles, impaired vision and paralysis in arms and legs.
How do you prevent it?
A vaccination offers good protection against this serious disease. The vaccination ensures that the illness is less severe. People who are fully vaccinated rarely die from diphtheria. Since the 1950s, the diphtheria vaccination is part of the Dutch National Immunisation Programme. The vaccine against diphtheria is usually given in combination with vaccines against tetanus, polio and, in children, whooping cough, and is also known as the DTP vaccine. If you are traveling to a country where diphtheria is prevalent, a booster vaccination may be necessary.