diphtheria (dĭfthērˈēə) [key], acute contagious disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae (Klebs-Loffler bacillus) bacteria that have been infected by a bacteriophage. It begins as a soreness of the throat with fever. The bacteria lodge in the mucous membranes of the throat, producing virulent toxins that destroy the tissue. The resultant formation of a tough gray membrane is one of the most dangerous aspects of diphtheria, since it can spread to the larynx and cause suffocation. Deaths from diphtheria often result from inflammation of the heart. Diphtheria usually occurs in children of preschool age. Treatment with antitoxin is begun as early as possible. Penicillin or erythromycin is also given, particularly to guard against complicating factors such as pneumonia or streptococcal infection. Diphtheria was once a common and dreaded disease with a high mortality rate; it is now rare in countries where infants are vaccinated (see vaccination). Underimmunization, however, can lead to epidemics such as the one in Russia during 1994–95.
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