FAQ: What is diphtheria and how dangerous is it?

FAQ: What is diphtheria and how dangerous is it?

A doctor prepares a syringe in a municipal vaccination centre in Nice
A doctor prepares a syringe for vaccination. (File photo: Reuters/Eric Gaillard)

SINGAPORE: A 21-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker died in Singapore on Friday (Aug 4) after contracting diphtheria.

He was likely to have been infected in Singapore, said the Ministry of Health, making this the first case of local infection in 25 years.

The ministry said on Saturday that it is screening those who came into close contact with the Bangladeshi man, including those who worked and lived with him.

Here are some frequently asked questions about diphtheria.

Q: How is diphtheria spread?

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that’s transmitted from one person to another through close physical contact, usually through respiratory droplets like from coughing or sneezing.

A person can also get diphtheria by coming into contact with an object that has the bacteria on it, according to the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Q: What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include fever, chills, sore throat, swelling of the neck and nasal discharge, and they usually occur after an incubation period of one to five days.

Symptoms often come gradually, starting with a fever and sore throat.

In severe cases, pseudo-membranes form in the throat, which may extend to the airways, leading to breathing difficulties.

Q: How is diphtheria treated?

Treatment involves administering antitoxin medicine as well as antibiotics, said Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH). Anyone suspected of having diphtheria will be put in isolation when they are admitted to hospital.

If diphtheria is suspected, treatment will begin before test results are confirmed, according to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

Q: How dangerous is it?

Diphtheria can lead to death in five to 10 per cent of cases, with a higher fatality rate in young children. However, diphtheria is preventable through vaccines.

In Singapore, vaccination against diphtheria - as with measles - is compulsory by law for children, as part of the National Childhood Immunisation Programme since 1962.

The vaccination coverage in children aged two is high, at 96 to 98 per cent. As such, MOH said the risk of diphtheria spreading in Singapore is low.

But diphtheria is still a significant child health problem in countries with poor immunisation coverage, said the World Health Organization. It was one of the most feared childhood diseases and one of the leading causes of death in children before vaccination became available.

Q: Are children the only ones who should get vaccinated?

The World Health Organization’s position is that at any age, opportunities should be taken to get vaccinated if people did not get the jab or complete the three doses of vaccination during infancy.

According to MOH’s immunisation schedule for infants, the first dose is to be given as early as three months old, the second dose at roughly four months and the final to be completed by six months of age. The diphtheria vaccine is given together with the tetanus and pertussis vaccines.

Booster shots are given at age 18 months and between 10 and 11 years old. 

Adults should also consider getting a booster jab when travelling to parts of the world where diphtheria is widespread, said NHS on its website.

Source: CNA/gs