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Travel health information for people travelling abroad from the UK

Diphtheria

Introduction

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract.

It remains a problem in parts of Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Russia, Central and South East Asia where vaccine coverage is low.

Transmission

The disease is transmitted by sneezing, coughing or by direct contact with respiratory secretions or by direct contact with skin lesions of an infected person.

The Illness

Diphtheria can cause serious inflammation of the throat. The bacteria release a toxin that leads to the formation of a thick greyish-white membrane over the back of the throat and in the most severe cases block the airway. Infection can be fatal.

The bacteria that cause diphtheria can also invade skin injuries and wounds. This form of diphtheria is usually mild and is commonly found on lower legs, feet and hands.

Diphtheria toxin can also cause heart damage and multi-organ failure even if recovery appears to have been made weeks earlier.

Treatment

Treatment for diphtheria, both respiratory and skin, is with specific antibiotics and antitoxin. Assisted breathing may be required for those who suffer from airway obstruction.

Recommendations for travellers

Diphtheria is vaccine preventable.

Travellers should ensure that they have completed the national schedule of vaccines for life in the UK.  This means that by the mid teens, 5 doses of vaccine giving protection against diphtheria should have been received.

Travellers should ensure that they have had a primary course of vaccine and receive a booster every 10 years if they are travelling to an area where diphtheria, is considered high risk.

To reduce the risk of infection further, travellers should practice good respiratory hygiene, especially during and after being in overcrowded/busy areas:

  • Wash hands with soap and water or alcohol hand gel.
  • Avoid hand contact with the eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid direct contact with people who appear unwell, or use of their personal gadgets.
  • Maintain good personal hygiene and use disposable tissues when coughing or sneezing and dispose of them appropriately.

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