Diphtheria is an infectious and notifiable bacterial disease which typically results in acute illness involving the upper respiratory tract. When a person has contracted the disease, it is infectious for up to 4 weeks and is spread mainly through coughing and sneezing. However, diphtheria can also affect mucous membranes, so it can be transmitted through skin lesions.
Important complications of a diphtheria infection include: airway obstruction, damage to the heart muscle (myocarditis), nerve damage (polyneuropathy) and loss of the ability to move (paralysis). Additionally 1/10 diphtheria patients die even after receiving treatment.
Since the introduction of school-based diphtheria vaccination programs in Australia (1932), the number of children and adults infected with this bacterium has dramatically reduced. However, because of low vaccination coverage in other countries, the potential for outbreak still exists.
Recently, due to the growing number of overseas visitors there has been outbreaks of diphtheria in Australia originating from Southeast Asia. In some countries within this region, certain vaccine-preventable diseases are endemic. Similarly, in other developed countries such as the USA and the UK, new cases are often imported. The World Health Organisation is working in partnership with endemic countries to increase their vaccination rates. As travel becomes more accessible, certain areas in Australia that have relatively low levels of vaccination coverage will be at high risk of acquiring disease from imported cases. This highlights the need to ensure your child is vaccinated and protected irrespective of family holidays overseas.
Diphtheria protection for a child (zero to four years) involves a 3-dose primary schedule at 2, 4, and 6 months and a further 2 boosters at 18 months and 4 years. For more information, please visit the consumer website of the WA Department of Health at healthywa.wa.gov.au