Childhood Diseases

Deadly Diphtheria

Diphtheria is a bacterial disease that invades the throat. It is spread through contact with salivary or nasal secretions, such as coughs and sneezes, from someone who is infected. The incubation period is seven days, and the major symptom is a sore throat. If the infection moves to the windpipe or respiratory tract, the disease can be much more serious. Complications can include damage to heart muscles and peripheral nerves.

Diphtheria was once one of the most common causes of death in children, but since the introduction and widespread use of the diphtheria vaccine, it is rarely found in the United States. However, some children in the United States aren't properly vaccinated, so some cases do occur.

The disease is still common in some parts of the world, including the Caribbean and Latin America. During the last few years, large epidemics of diphtheria have occurred in the former Soviet republics, as well as Algeria, China, and Ecuador. The majority of cases in many of these epidemics have been in young people who were improperly vaccinated, or not vaccinated at all.

In the United States, the diphtheria threat is shifting from children to adults and adolescents. Cases are occurring in people who have not been immunized and in vaccinated people who did not receive periodic booster doses to maintain their immunity. Routine vaccination of both children and adults is essential to prevent the reemergence of diphtheria in the United States.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dangerous Diseases and Epidemics © 2002 by David Perlin, Ph.D., and Ann Cohen. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.