Health minister appeals for calm amid diphtheria infection panic

Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla has called for the public not to panic after the country recorded two positive cases of diphtheria.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases, a division of the National Health Laboratory Service, alerted the Department of Health of two laboratory-confirmed cases of diphtheria which were detected in April.

Foster Mohale, spokesperson for the department, said the first case was detected in an adult in KwaZulu-Natal before an child from Western Cape also presented with the symptoms of the disease.

Diphtheria is an uncommon but vaccine-preventable “serious infection” caused by a toxin-producing bacterium called Corynebacterium diphtheria.

“The toxin may lead to difficulty in breathing, heart rhythm problems, and even death,” said Mohale.

Mohale noted that the bacteria spreads from person to person, usually through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing.

“The symptoms of diphtheria include sore throat [with the formation of a membrane on the tonsil and throat], and swollen glands in the front of the neck. Close contact of known cases are at increased risk of infection.”

Routine diphtheria vaccination is part of the childhood vaccine programme and parents are encouraged to get their children vaccinated.

“The vaccine should be given to all children as part of the routine vaccines in the first year of life. Booster doses at the ages of six and 12 years should also be given. Catch-up vaccination is possible if doses have been missed,” he said.

However, the department said diphtheria antitoxin is in short supply globally, noting that the World Health Organisation is working to secure additional supplies of antitoxin.

“Treatment in the absence of antitoxin is appropriate antibiotics and supportive care.”

According to the department, these cases are a reminder that a drop in vaccine coverage may lead to more infections.

“All parents are urged to ensure that their children are up to date for routine vaccines. Children who are not up to date for vaccines should be taken to the nearest clinic for vaccination.”

Meanwhile, clinicians including primary healthcare nurses throughout the country have been urged to have a high index of suspicion for diphtheria, to notice suspected cases and to send specimens to the laboratory for testing.


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