Diphtheria is a rare but serious infectious disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The bacterium usually causes infection of the throat and nose but can also cause skin infections.
While some cases may be mild, the bacteria can produce dangerous toxins that cause severe complications which can be life-threatening. Such complications include heart trouble, paralysis, and kidney failure. Cases of diphtheria in New Zealand have declined significantly over the last century with very few cases reported in the last 50 years.
Diphtheria is spread by close personal contact with someone who is infected or is a carrier of the bacteria and shows no symptoms. Spread commonly occurs via respiratory droplets, originating from a cough or a sneeze. The bacteria can also spread through contaminated objects or food.
Traditional tattooing has also been implicated in cases of skin infection in New Zealand.
Diphtheria causes inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, including the nose and throat. Symptoms may include sore throat, breathing problems, bloody or watery drainage from the nose, hoarseness, a bark-like cough and painful swallowing. Swelling of the throat and neck is characterised by a ‘bull neck’. Some cases will experience infection of the skin, resulting in skin lesions. However, some cases may not experience any symptoms.
People suspected of having diphtheria will be given an antitoxin injection to the muscle or into the vein. Infection is then treated with antibiotics, such as erythromycin or benzathine penicillin. Additional treatment may include intravenous fluids, oxygen, bed rest, heart monitoring, use of a breathing tube, and correction of any blocked airways.
The effects of diphtheria can range from mild to severe.