understanding diphtheria: as one of the world’s most serious and life-threatening infectious diseases, diphtheria can do a lot more than ruin your holiday

Diphtheria is an extremely infectious disease that can be easily passed between people. Even when full medical treatment is delivered after the onset of the condition, it still causes death in up to 10% of those who contract it.

Diphtheria causes the production of a powerful toxin, which kills cells in the mouth, nose and throat. These dead cells build up and form a membrane which can attach to the throat, creating a choking hazard. The condition can also impact the heart and the nerves, leading to heart failure and neurological damage.

Needless to say, travellers jetting off to potential risk areas for diphtheria should take care to avoid the condition. Here is a guide to help you with understanding diphtheria.

A brief history of diphtheria

Until the introduction of the diphtheria vaccination in 1942, the disease was a common childhood illness in the UK, killing around 3,500 children per year. Nowadays, the disease is hardly seen in the UK or in wider Europe thanks to the vaccination. In fact, since the start of 2015, only two children – both unvaccinated – have died of diphtheria in Europe. However, the condition is still common in some parts of the world.

Where are you most at risk?

Diphtheria most often occurs in poor-resource countries where routine immunisation may not be possible. The condition is reported in high numbers in south Asia, particularly in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. It can also be found in south east Asia and the western Pacific, specifically Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines and Papua New Guinea.

Diphtheria is also present in sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria), South America (Brazil) and the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan).

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

Diphtheria most commonly affects the nose and throat, though it can also impact the skin. People can carry the illness and pass it on without showing any symptoms themselves.

Early symptoms of the condition include high temperature and fever, nausea, headaches, sickness, a raised heart rate and a sore throat. Once cells begin to die in the throat, they build up to form a thick grey-white membrane in the back of the throat. This can lead to breathing difficulties and eventually choking.

If diphtheria impacts the skin, it can also cause ulcers.

How is diphtheria passed on?

It is all too easy for diphtheria to be passed from person to person. It is spread via water droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. It can also be caught from direct contact with someone who has the disease. Diphtheria can also be caught from items such as clothing, bedding or toys which have been in contact with an infected person.

People who have contracted diphtheria are infectious for up to four weeks or sometimes even longer.

What can you do to protect yourself against diphtheria?

Because diphtheria is so easily spread, simple precautions like washing hands or changing clothes are often not enough to guarantee your protection. What’s more, a natural immunity to diphtheria cannot be developed without first contracting the disease, which involves a high risk of death.

The best way to protect against diphtheria is through vaccination. There are five doses of vaccine designed for babies and children: three doses of the 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 vaccine for babies, Pre-School Booster and a Teenage Booster. For adults travelling, a booster vaccine is most often advised.

Safe and effective vaccination against diphtheria is vital for travellers setting off for risk areas. Thankfully, diphtheria vaccinations are available at Express Travel Clinic. Visit one of our four London clinics today or click here to book an appointment. You can also call us on 0208 993 58 89.