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A young child receives vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio © Ton Koene

    Diphtheria is a contagious and potentially fatal bacterial respiratory infection. The illness often causes the development of a greyish, thick membrane in the throat and nose that can cause airway obstruction and suffocation. The toxin produced by the bacteria can also affect other organs, mainly the heart and kidneys, and the nervous system. The disease has a gradual onset with fever, followed by patches that form a membrane in the throat. The inflammation and swelling of the surrounding tissue can lead to a so-called ‘bull neck’ appearance.

    Besides antibiotics, administration of diphtheria antitoxin (DAT) is a main pillar of treatment. DAT can cause severe allergic reactions and therefore its administration requires close monitoring of the patient. Globally, the production and supply of DAT has become extremely problematic. Following the global increase in vaccination coverage over the last decades, the disease has become relatively rare, and almost all industrialised countries have ceased production of the antitoxin.

    Diphtheria is preventable by vaccination and is included in routine immunisation. During outbreaks, a key component to curbing the spread of the disease is vaccinating and giving antibiotic prophylaxis to all close contacts of the patient.