Monday 28 November 2022 04:08 PM What IS diphtheria and how does the bug spread? trends now

Monday 28 November 2022 04:08 PM What IS diphtheria and how does the bug spread? trends now
Monday 28 November 2022 04:08 PM What IS diphtheria and how does the bug spread? trends now

Monday 28 November 2022 04:08 PM What IS diphtheria and how does the bug spread? trends now

It was called 'the strangler' for how it ravaged children in the Victorian-era, killing them by the thousands.

But experts fear that diphtheria may no longer be a disease of the past and could be spreading silently in UK again.

There have now been 50 confirmed cases of the disease detected in migrants in Britain since the start of the year, according to health officials, compared to a single case in 2020. 

Here, MailOnline answers all your questions about diphtheria — a potentially deadly, yet almost completely preventable, disease.

Here are some of the most famous symptoms of diphtheria, once called the the strangler' for how it ravaged Britain in ages past

Here are some of the most famous symptoms of diphtheria, once called the the strangler' for how it ravaged Britain in ages past 

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial infection which mainly affects the nose and throat. It can also infect the skin, causing painful lesions.

The bug, which is preventable with vaccines, can be fatal if not treated quickly.

Despite being flushed out of Britain with vaccines, the bug still circulates naturally in parts of the world.

Haven't we eradicated it?

Prior to public vaccination programmes in the 1940s there were about 60,000 diphtheria cases per year in the UK, with 4,000 deaths.

This year notwithstanding, in modern Britain days there are only about a dozen cases, with only one or often zero deaths, per year.

This is largely thanks to the vaccines designed to train the body to spot and fight the bacteria behind the infection given as part of the childhood immunisation programme.  

However, infection is more common in parts of the world like Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. 

Both cases and deaths of diphtheria were blunted in the UK following the implementation of routine vaccinations in 1942

Both cases and deaths of diphtheria were blunted in the UK following the implementation of routine vaccinations in 1942

While diphtheria vaccines have been credited with massively reducing infections and deaths from the disease uptake of the jabs (blue line) has been falling slightly in modern times. The most recent data shows between 7 to 8 per cent of children may not be fully protected

While diphtheria vaccines have been credited with massively reducing infections and deaths from the disease uptake of the jabs (blue line) has been falling slightly in modern times. The most recent data shows between 7 to 8 per cent of children may not be fully protected

What are the signs of an infection?

Symptoms usually start two to five days after becoming infected.

One sign of the disease is a thick grey-white coating that may cover the back of the throat, nose and tongue.

People can also have a fever and develop a 'bull neck' — where glands in the neck swell up while fighting the infection.

Another symptom is difficulty breathing and swallowing.

Skin diphtheria infections are rarer. These usually take the form of pus-filled blisters on the legs, feet and hands as well as large ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin.

An unnamed child with diphtheria revealing a condition known as 'bull neck' caused by swelling in the throat caused by the bacterial infection (undated photo)

An unnamed child with diphtheria revealing a condition known as 'bull neck' caused by swelling in the throat caused by the bacterial infection (undated photo) 

How does diphtheria spread?

It's mainly spread by coughs and sneezes in close proximity, similar to Covid.

Yet it is considered less contagious due to it being a bacterial infection, compared to Covid which is a virus. 

People can also get infected by sharing items, such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding, with an infected person.

Is it dangerous?

Diphtheria poses a bigger threat to young children.

The main danger comes from toxins produced by the bacteria spreading through the bloodstream and damaging healthy tissues. 

These can affect on our ability to breathe and get the oxygen we need to survive into our body as well. This is why, historically, the disease was called 'the strangler'.

The toxins can also cause dangerous inflammation of the heart and damage organs and nerves. 

Studies have put the overall death rate for diphtheria in healthy adults at 5 per cent, meaning about one in 20 cases results in a fatality.

This rises to 20 per cent, or one in five, among children under five. Older adults are also at a similar risk, data shows.

How is diphtheria treated?

A diphtheria infection needs quick treatment to reduce the chance of serious complications, which can be fatal.

Patients are offered antibiotics to kill the bacteria behind the infection as well as drugs that help counteract the effects of the toxins they produce.

If a diphtheria infection has occurred in the skin these wounds need to be thoroughly cleaned, though may leave permanent scars. 

Treatment for a diphtheria infection generally lasts two to three weeks.

Close contacts of patients are sometimes offered a preventive course of antibiotics.

All migrants arriving in the UK are offered voluntary vaccinations against diphtheria and antibiotics are also provided. 

Once a vaccine for diphtheria suitable for mass immunisation was developed in public health authorities issued promotional material to advertise it to paraents

Once a vaccine for diphtheria suitable for mass immunisation was developed in public health authorities issued promotional material to advertise it to paraents

Families here pictured at Manchester Town Hall in 1961 queuing to get diphtheria vaccine for their children

Families here pictured at Manchester Town Hall in 1961 queuing to get diphtheria vaccine for their children

Why are there concerns about diphtheria now?

Fears about the disease spreading have been sparked by reports that migrants with the disease have been moved around the country from Kent's  Manston processing centre.

These concerns were heightened after the read more from dailymail.....

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