Diphtheria is a infection caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria and is spread from person to person, usually through respiratory droplets, from coughing or sneezing. Rarely, spreading may occur from skin lesions (like an abnormal sore) or clothes that are contaminated with discharges from lesions (like a sore) of an infected person.
A person also can get infected with diphtheria by coming in contact with an object, like a toy, that has been contaminated with the bacteria that cause diphtheria.
Diphtheria once was a major cause of illness and death among children. The U.S. recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria in 1921, resulting in 15,520 deaths. Before there was treatment for diphtheria, up to half of the people who got the disease died from it (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Starting in the 1920s, diphtheria rates dropped quickly in the U.S. and other countries that began widely vaccinating. In the past decade, there were less than five cases of diphtheria in the U.S. reported to CDC. However, the disease continues to play a role globally. In 2011, 4,887 cases of diphtheria were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), but there are likely many more cases.
Vaccine - Tdap, DTaP, DT and Td
Diphtheria is a communicable disease that is preventable through vaccines. There are four combination vaccines used to prevent diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis: DTaP, Tdap, DT, and Td. Two of these (DTaP and DT) are given to children younger than 7 years of age, and two (Tdap and Td) are given to older children and adults.
Upper-case letters in these abbreviations denote full-strength doses of diphtheria (D) and tetanus (T) toxoids and pertussis (P) vaccine. Lower-case "d" and "p" denote reduced doses of diphtheria and pertussis used in the adolescent/adult-formulations.
For more information about these vaccines, click here.
School Exclusion and Reportable to Public Health
In the extremely rare case that a child in the United States is infected with diphtheria (in the past decade, there were less than five cases of diphtheria in the U.S. reported to CDC), the infection should be immediately reported to Ventura County Public Health and the child would be excluded from school until released by their doctor and a public health officer.
Other Diphtheria Resources