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Diphtheria Outbreak: All you need to know about disease, its causes, symptoms, and spread

On Friday, January 20, 2023, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) confirmed the outbreak of Diphtheria in Lagos and Kano States, Nigeria. The NCDC has subsequently responded to reports of cases in Lagos and Kano States and is monitoring the situation in Osun and Yobe States, where cases are now being picked up.

With disease, outbreaks come information overload and, inevitably, misinformation, so you need to know important information on Diphtheria.

What is Diphtheria, and what causes it?

Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial infection that primarily affects the upper respiratory system. It is caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which produces toxins that can damage the heart, nerves, and other organs. 

The disease can lead to severe complications and even death if left untreated. In warmer climates like Nigeria, people with diphtheria develop skin sores that will not heal and may be covered with grey tissue.

What are the different types of diphtheria?

There are two main types of diphtheria; classical respiratory and cutaneous diphtheria. 

Classical respiratory diphtheria: This is the most common type of diphtheria, classical respiratory diphtheria may affect your nose, throat, tonsils, or larynx (voice box). Symptoms can vary depending on where the affected membranes are located in your body. Some people call this condition pharyngeal diphtheria (diphtheria of the throat).

Cutaneous diphtheria: The rarest type of diphtheria, it is characterised by skin rash, sores or blisters, which can appear anywhere on your body. Cutaneous diphtheria is more common in tropical climates or crowded places where people live in unhealthy conditions.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

Symptoms of diphtheria usually appear within two to five days after exposure to the bacteria. They include a sore throat, fever, and swollen glands in the neck. The most distinctive symptom of diphtheria is a thick, grey or white coating that forms on the tonsils, pharynx, or nose. This coating, known as a pseudomembrane, can make it difficult to breathe or swallow.

Diphtheria can cause other symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, weakness, fatigue, and a hoarse voice. The disease can sometimes lead to heart failure, nerve damage, and paralysis.

How can the disease be contracted?

Diphtheria can be contracted through airborne droplets that contain bacteria (spread by sneezing, coughing, and spitting) or by touching something that has bacteria on it. It is also possible that an infected person could transmit the disease through an open sore touched by someone else or touching clothes that someone else touches. It’s possible to get diphtheria more than once.

People who are not immunised or have not had a booster shot in the past ten years are at higher risk of contracting diphtheria. The disease is highly contagious and can be fatal if not treated promptly.

Sometimes, diphtheria is contracted from handling an infected person’s things, such as used tissues or hand towels, that may be contaminated with bacteria.

Risk factors for diphtheria include lack of immunisation, living in crowded conditions, and poor hygiene. The disease is more common in developing countries where vaccination coverage is low.

How do I prevent diphtheria infection?

On the prevention of Diphtheria, Dr Adeolu Olusodo, the Medical Director of Atayeshe Health Network, explained that vaccination is the best form of preventing the disease.

“That is why newly borns are given the pentavalent vaccines to prevent the child from life-threatening diseases such as Diphtheria,” Olusodo added.

Also, to contain the spread from person to person, “you can also wear a facemask.” 

While for people who have friends or family members that have been diagnosed with the disease, “prophylactic antibiotics should be taken to prevent them from contracting the disease.” he added.

On his part, Pharmacist Omale Ogbe, a medical representative at Evans Therapeutics, also explained that Diphtheria is caused mainly by bacteria that affect the airways, and the vaccine is the best way to prevent the disease.

Ogbe added that “people also develop natural herd immunity that fights against the disease.” 

In the sense that the majority of a population acquires natural antibodies against the disease either through vaccination or due to a previous infection. 

Like in the case of COVID-19, many people who had the virus and recovered later developed antibodies that fought against it. When they had the virus again, their body system dealt with it without taking the vaccine or further treatment. 

“This reduces the likeliness of Diphtheria transmission from one person to another,” Ogbe said.

While the diphtheria vaccine is effective at preventing diphtheria, there may be some side effects. Some children may experience a mild fever, fussiness, drowsiness, or tenderness at the injection site after a DTaP shot. Ask your doctor what you can do for your child to minimize or relieve these effects.

Although complications from this vaccine are rare, the DTaP vaccine can cause severe but treatable complications in a child, such as an allergic reaction (hives or a rash develops within minutes of the injection).

Some children, such as those with epilepsy or another nervous system condition, may not be able to get the DTaP vaccine.


Diphtheria is a severe bacterial infection that must be taken seriously, as it can lead to severe complications and death if left untreated. 

Although Diphtheria is rare in developed countries, it can still occur in areas with low vaccination rates. It is, therefore, essential to maintain vaccination records and stay up to date with recommended vaccinations to prevent the spread of diphtheria and other serious illnesses.

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