Diphtheria

Diphtheria Summary
Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria. The disease is transmitted via contact with airborne droplets or direct contact with skin lesions. Symptoms and signs include fever, sore throat, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing and breathing. Antibiotics and the diphtheria antitoxin are used in the treatment of diphtheria.
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Diphtheria facts

  • Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae.
  • Diphtheria is primarily transmitted via airborne respiratory droplets or by direct contact with secretions from infected people.
  • The symptoms of diphtheria include sore throat, fever, malaise, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty breathing.
  • Diphtheria is treated with both antitoxin and antibiotics.
  • Diphtheria can lead to cardiac and neurologic complications, as well as death.
  • Immunization is the best prevention against diphtheria.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. This disease primarily affects the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract (respiratory diphtheria), although it may also affect the skin (cutaneous diphtheria) and lining tissues in the ear, eye, and the genital areas.

What is the history of diphtheria?

Throughout history, diphtheria was a leading cause of death among children, and it was once referred to as the "strangling angel of children." Through the ages, several epidemics struck Europe, and even the American colonies were affected by an outbreak in the 18th century. In 1921, there were 206,000 cases of diphtheria recorded in the U.S., with 15,520 deaths. More recently, in the 1990s, large outbreaks of diphtheria occurred in Russia and in the former independent states of the Soviet Union.

The diphtheria bacterium was first identified in the 1880s. In the 1890s, the antitoxin against diphtheria was developed, with the first vaccine being developed in the 1920s. With the development and administration of the diphtheria vaccine, the incidence of diphtheria has decreased significantly. Though it is still endemic in many parts of the world, respiratory diphtheria has now become a very rare disease in the United States (with no cases recorded between 2004-2008). However, worldwide, there are still cases of diphtheria, with 4,887 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011. Whereas diphtheria primarily affected younger children in the pre-vaccination era, an increasing proportion of cases today occur in unvaccinated or inadequately immunized adolescents and adults.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/26/2013

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