Diphtheria vaccine is used to treat an acute bacterial infection which affects mostly children. In the earlier part of the century, it was the primary cause of death in children aged from 4 to 10, and the second most likely cause of death for those in the 3 to 4 year age group.
Recurring epidemics were the norm until an active immunization program began in 1940, resulting in a dramatic decline in deaths from the disease.
Nowadays there are only a few cases each year, most of which are ‘imported’ by immigrants or travelers returning from abroad
What causes diphtheria?
Diphtheria is caused by a bacterium, Corynebacterium diphtheria. It lives in the nose, throat or on the skin, either of an infected a person or a symptomless carrier – usually someone who has acquired immunity to the disease, having recovered from a previous mild attack.
Although the bacteria can be transmitted by skin contact, the virus is most often spread by sneezing or coughing. The victim breathes in the infected droplets, and there is an interval of 2 to 6 days before the first symptoms appear.
The child is at most risk not from the bacteria but the toxins (poisons) released by the bacteria into the bloodstream. These may cause severe damage to the nerves, the kidneys and the heart (leading to heart failure).
Diphtheria Vaccine helps in the following symptoms
Thick membrane across the throat.
Difficulty in talking and breathing.
A sore throat.
Increased heart rate.
A child who has not been immunized against diphtheria is at risk from one of the
more severe, and potentially fatal, childhood diseases.
The symptoms of diphtheria vary depending on where the bacteria are located. The most visible sign of the disease is a tough gray membrane which grows over the tonsils and the back of the throat down to the larynx (voice box) as the bacteria invade the respiratory (breathing) tract.
The membrane can restrict and, in severe cases, completely block the air passages, causing hoarseness, sore throat, difficulty in breathing and even suffocation (asphyxia).
If the bacteria are lodged in the nose, there is often a blood-stained discharge. Other symptoms may include yellow spots and sores on the skin and thickening and swelling of the tissues surrounding the lymph nodes in the neck.
However, a child may show none of these symptoms and simply be very pale and listless. Diagnosis is usually confirmed by taking swabs from the nose and throat and analyzing them in a hospital laboratory.
Diphtheria vaccine involves antibiotics to kill the bacteria and, most importantly, anti-toxins to combat the effect of toxins in the bloodstream. Diphtheria vaccine is carried out in a hospital isolation ward.
This allows the doctor to closely monitor the child’s progress and to give prompt diphtheria vaccine treatment for any complications. Keeping the child in isolation also helps to prevent further spread of the infection.
Severe cases may spend at least three weeks, and sometimes as long as six weeks, in the hospital.
If your child has any of the symptoms (especially difficulty in breathing), consult your doctor immediately.
Diphtheria is a disease which can develop over a period of weeks, and severe complications can set in as the illness progresses.
What will the doctor do?
If laboratory tests confirm the diagnosis, your doctor will arrange for the child to be admitted to hospital.
Antibiotics (such as penicillin) and anti-toxins will typically be prescribed. The doctor will also be anxious to track down and treat anyone else affected, both victims and carriers, to prevent an epidemic.
What can I do myself?
There is not much you can do beyond alerting the doctor as soon as possible since even children with a mild case of diphtheria are usually hospitalized.
How can my child avoid diphtheria?
It is critical that your baby is immunized. A triple vaccine (called the DPT vaccine) for diphtheria, pertussis ( a whooping cough) and tetanus is given at spaced intervals during the first year of life, usually at around two, three and four months of age.
This is followed by a booster injection of diphtheria and tetanus vaccine when the child starts school.
Although immunization does not eliminate the risk of catching diphtheria, it does ensure that the attack would be a very mild one, with little chance of complications.
Is diphtheria dangerous?
Diphtheria is still one of the most feared childhood diseases in developing countries where children are not routinely vaccinated.
The membrane can completely obstruct the windpipe, and emergency tracheotomy (surgical insertion of a breathing tube below the blockage) may be necessary.
The toxins released by the diphtheria bacteria can attack the heart and kidneys causing severe damage and, in some cases, death unless anti-toxins are swiftly administered.
The toxins can also affect the nervous system, resulting in blurred and double vision, paralysis of the limbs and cessation of breathing.
Now that cases of diphtheria in Britain are so rare, some parents may feel that vaccination is no longer necessary.
But children with no immunity would be at serious risk if they came into contact with the disease. An epidemic could result, with the possibility of many fatalities.
Adults traveling to Third World countries should also consult their doctor about diphtheria vaccine if they have not been immunized as children.