Cairns man, 27, dies from diphtheria after contracting disease in Australia

A Far North Queensland man has died from the extremely rare but highly contageous disease diphtheria two weeks after being rushed to a Brisbane hospital.

The 27-year-old from Cairns was flown to Prince Charles Hospital in a critical condition on January 24, after spending a week at Cairns Hospital.

The man had not recently travelled overseas, so the infection was caught in Australia, according to the director of Cairns and Hinterland Hospital Services Dr Richard Gair.

A Cairns man has died in a Brisbane hospital two weeks after contracting diphtheria. Source: Getty, File

“The infection was acquired in Australia, with the patient having no recent history of overseas travel,” Dr Gair told the Brisbane Times.

It is spread by direct contact with an infected person, or through contaminated objects.

It's understood the man was not vaccinated against the disease.

The health service has been getting in touch with people the man was in contact with in an effort to trace the infection and prevent its spread.

“All people potentially at risk of being infected due to close contact with the patient are being identified, clinically tested, treated appropriately with preventative antibiotics and being vaccinated,” Dr Gair said.

This micrograph reveals multiplication of a bacterium in a heart section from a patient with diphtheria-related myocarditis. Source: Getty, File

“There is minimal risk to the broader community who were not close contacts of the patient.”

Health authorities last month stressed the disease is extremely rare in Australia.

"Diphtheria is extremely rare in most developed countries, including Australia, because of the widespread use of the diphtheria vaccine," Dr Gair said at the time.

Diphtheria is caused by bacteria and results primarily in swelling in the nose, throat and windpipe, which can cause breathing difficulties.

In Australia, young children and adolescents receive a free diphtheria vaccination under the National Immunisation Program. A booster vaccination is available up to 20 years of age, while adult doses are given in combination with tetanus vaccination, available to those aged from 19 years.

Symptoms usually begin two to five days after exposure to the bacteria but sometimes appear up to 10 days later. They range from a sore throat and mucus, to ulcers on limbs, and swelling in the nose, throat and windpipe, which can cause breathing difficulties.

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