Type: Bacterial

Geography: Worldwide; epidemics occurred in Eastern European countries in the 1990s

Cases Per Year: 16,000

Fatality Rate: 10% with treatment, 50% without treatment

First Discovered: 1884 by Edwin Klebs and Freidrich Loffler in Germany

Diphtheria can infect the respiratory tract and skin. Respiratory diphtheria is the more common type, and can cause weakness, sore throat, mild fever, and swollen glands in the neck. The bacterial toxin kills healthy tissues in the respiratory system, which build up and coat the throat or nose, making it difficult to breathe or swallow. If the toxin gets into the blood stream, it can cause heart, nerve, and kidney damage, and paralysis. Skin diphtheria can cause open sores or ulcers but rarely results in severe disease.

It is spread from person to person through respiratory droplets, like from coughing or sneezing. Transmission is facilitated by crowding and poor socioeconomic conditions. It can also be transmitted when people touch infected open sores or ulcers.

Before the introduction of vaccines, diptheria was a leading cause of childhood death around the world. While immunization is common, there are still outbreaks of diptheria throughout the world every year. The best way to prevent diphtheria is to keep up to date with vaccines. 95% of people vaccinated develop immunity, and vaccination has resulted in a more than 90% decrease in the number of cases globally between 1980 and 2000. About 86% of the world population was vaccinated as of 2016.

Photo: Corynebacterium diphtheriae – Electron micrograph.