Risks at a glance:

  • Blocking of the airway
  • Damage to the heart muscle
  • Heart failure
  • Skin infections
  • Nerve damage
  • Loss of the ability to move (paralysis)
  • Lung infection (respiratory failure or pneumonia)
  • Death – even with treatment, about 1 out of 10 diphtheria patients die
  • Without treatment, as many as 1 out of 2 patients can die from it

About the disease:
Diphtheria is caused by a bacterium called Corynebacterium Diphtheria. It mostly infects the throat and upper airways and produces a toxin that affects other organs. Symptoms start with a sore throat, fever, and chills, then the diphtheria toxin makes a thick white or greyish coating in the back of the nose or throat which makes it hard to breathe or swallow. The coating may get so thick that it blocks the airway and the person can’t breathe.

How is it spread:
Diphtheria is easily spread through the air by coughs or sneezes or close contact with an infected person. A person who does not receive treatment can spread the disease for about 2 weeks after infection.

If diphtheria is diagnosed early enough, the diphtheria antitoxin can be used to stop the toxin from damaging the body, and antibiotics to kill and get rid of the diphtheria bacteria. Even with treatment, about 1 out of 10 people who get diphtheria will die.

People with diphtheria are usually kept in isolation, until they are no longer contagious – this usually takes about 48 hours after starting antibiotics. After the person finishes taking the antibiotic, the doctor will run tests to make sure the bacteria are not in their body anymore.

Impact of Diphtheria:
In the 1970s, before the diphtheria vaccine became easily available to all countries, around 1 million cases, and  50000–60000 deaths happened each year in low and middle income countries who were unable to provide effective diphtheria vaccination programs.

The biggest recent outbreak was reported in the Russian Federation and former Soviet Republics in the 1990s when the breakup of the Soviet Union saw vaccine supplies interrupted and immunisation rates fell dramatically. There was more than 157000 cases and 5000 deaths reported between 1990–1998.

Now that there is more widespread vaccination across the world, there was 7,097 reported cases of diphtheria worldwide in 2016.

There is a vaccine for diphtheria that is 95% effective and lasts for about 10 years.

Real life stories:

A Queensland man died in February 2018 from diphtheria.

A Queensland woman died in April 2011 from diphtheria.

A 14 month old unvaccinated baby dies from diphtheria.


Diphtheria infection in the throat of a child