Diphtheria is an infection caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Signs and symptoms may vary from mild to severe. They usually start two to five days after exposure. Symptoms often come on fairly gradually beginning with a sore throat and fever. In severe cases a grey or white patch develops in the throat. This can block the airway and create a barking cough as in croup. The neck may swell in part due to large lymph nodes. A form of diphtheria that involves the skin, eyes, or genitals also exists. Complications may include myocarditis, inflammation of nerves, kidney problems, and bleeding problems due to low blood platelets. Myocarditis may result in an abnormal heart rate and inflammation of the nerves may result in paralysis.
Diphtheria is usually spread between people by direct contact or through the air. It may also be spread by contaminated objects. Some people carry the bacteria without having symptoms, but can still spread the disease to others. There are three main types ofC. diphtheriae causing different severities of disease. The symptoms are due to a toxin produced by the bacteria. Diagnosis can often be made based on the appearance of the throat with confirmation by culture. Previous infection may not prevent against future infection.
A vaccine, known as diphtheria toxoid, is effective for prevention and available in a number of formulations. Three or four doses, given along with tetanus toxoid and acellular pertussis vaccine, are recommended during childhood. Further doses are recommended every ten years. Protection can be verified by measuring the antitoxin level in the blood. Treatment is with the antibiotic erythromycin or penicillin G. These antibiotics may also be used for prevention in those who have been exposed to the infection. A surgical procedure known as a tracheostomy is sometimes needed to open the airway in severe cases.
In 2013, 4,700 cases were officially reported, down from nearly 100,000 in 1980. It is believed, however, that about a million cases occurred per year before the 1980s. It currently occurs most often in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Indonesia. In 2013, it resulted in 3,300 deaths down from 8,000 deaths in 1990. In areas where it is still common, children are most affected. It is rare in the developed world due to widespread vaccination. In the United States 57 cases were reported between 1980 and 2004. Death occurs in between 5% and 10% of those affected. The disease was first described in the 5th century BC by Hippocrates. The bacterium was discovered in 1882 by Edwin Klebs.
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