A child with a severe case of diphtheria, which causes the classic 'bull neck'. File photo.
A child with a severe case of diphtheria, which causes the classic 'bull neck'. File photo.

Rare, potentially fatal disease reported on North Coast

UPDATE 3.30pm: THE latest confirmed case of diphtheria in a Northern Rivers adult is the first case of toxigenic diphtheria in the Northern NSW Local Health District since 2001.

Greg Bell, Acting Director North Coast Public Health Unit said each year there are several cases of non-toxigenic diphtheria reported, these are usually related to wounds.

Mr Bell confirmed one case of diphtheria in an adult North Coast resident.

The patient is being treated with antibiotics and all relevant contacts have been followed up in accordance with public health control guidelines.

Diphtheria iss a rare condition, notifiable to the local Public Health Unit.

It is a bacterial infection, most often spread in airborne droplets by coughing or sneezing. Diphtheria is treated with antibiotics.

Vaccination protects against the disease, and is included on the standard immunisation schedule for children at six weeks, four and six months of age, with boosters at 18 months, four years and in Year Seven.

Symptoms of diphtheria usually begin two to five days after exposure, and include a sore throat, loss of appetite and mild fever. Within two to three days, a membrane forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it hard to swallow and breathe. The infection can also cause swelling in the lymph glands and tissues on both sides of the neck.

The infection can also cause inflammation of heart muscle and nerves, leading to death in five to 10 per cent of cases.

Patients concerned about symptoms should visit their General Practitioner or nearest emergency department. 

NSW Health has more information about diphtheria on their website.

 

Original story: THE North Coast Public Health Unit has confirmed a case of potentially fatal disease diphtheria in an adult North Coast resident.

In the 1900s, diphtheria caused more deaths in Australia than any other infectious disease and was a common cause of death in children, but has now almost disappeared in Australia due to immunisation.

It usually affects the nose and throat, and can be treated with antibiotics.

According to weekly reports from NSW Health, the last reported case in NSW was in late January this year.

A case was contracted locally in 2016 by a woman after she attended the Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival near Casino.

The last diphtheria death in Queensland occurred in February this year, but the latest fatal case before that was in 2011.

It is believed before that, there were a handful of cases in the Northern Territory in the early 1990s.

Assistant Director of the North Coast Public Health Unit, Greg Bell, said diphtheria was a rare condition, notifiable to the local Public Health Unit.

"The patient has been discharged from hospital and all relevant contacts have been followed up in accordance with public health control guidelines," Mr Bell said.

"It is a bacterial infection, most often spread in airborne droplets by coughing or sneezing.

"Vaccination protects against the disease, and is included on the standard immunisation schedule for children at six weeks, four and six months of age, with boosters at 18 months, four years and in Year 7."

He said symptoms of diphtheria usually begin two to five days after exposure, and include a sore throat, loss of appetite and mild fever.

"Within two to three days, a membrane forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it hard to swallow and breathe.

"The infection can also cause swelling in the lymph glands and tissues on both sides of the neck.

"The infection can also cause inflammation of heart muscle and nerves, leading to death in five to 10 per cent of cases.

"Patients concerned about symptoms should visit their General Practitioner or nearest emergency department."

NSW Health says it is very uncommon in Australia but can re-emerge when immunisation rates are low.

It's is a contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection caused by toxin-producing strains of Corynebacterium diphtheriae and Corynebacterium ulcerans.

Anyone who comes in contact with diphtheria during its infectious period who has not had diphtheria in the past or has not been fully immunised is at risk.

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms usually begin two to five days (range 1 - 10 days) after exposure to the diphtheria bacteria. Symptoms will depend on the site of infection but the most severe form of diphtheria affects the throat and tonsils. The first symptoms are usually a sore throat, loss of appetite and a mild fever.
  • Within 2-3 days, a membrane forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it hard to swallow and breathe. The infection can also cause the lymph glands and tissues on both sides of the neck to swell - 'bull neck'.
  • The toxin formed by diphtheria bacteria can also cause inflammation of heart muscle and the nerves which can be fatal. Death occurs in five-10 per cent of cases of diphtheria.
  • Sometimes diphtheria can cause small skin sores that form larger ulcers, commonly on the legs. This form of diphtheria is more common in the tropics.

How is it spread?

  • Diphtheria bacteria can live in the mouth, nose, throat or skin on infected individuals.
  • Diphtheria is normally spread from person to person in airborne droplets after an infected person has coughed or sneezed. Rarely, diphtheria spreads from close contact with discharges from an infected person's mouth, nose, throat or skin.
  • Without antibiotic treatment, people with diphtheria are infectious for up to 4 weeks from the onset of symptoms. Some people become carriers and are infectious for longer.
  • Corynebacterium ulcerans infection is occasionally associated with consumption of unpasteurised milk or contact with animals.


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