Urgent warning over 'nasty' diphtheria disease re-emerging in Australia

A potentially deadly bacterial disease has re-emerged in NSW for the first time this century, prompting a dire warning from experts.

Earlier this month, NSW confirmed a second case of diphtheria of the throat, a six-year-old from the state's north.

The child was not vaccinated against diphtheria and was admitted to a local health facility as a precaution.

Senior Vaccine Advisor to UNICEF Australia, Chris Maher AO, says the cases of children being infected by the disease are a reminder of the importance of vaccination.

"The last two years of pandemic have shown us how effective vaccination is in fighting and preventing severe disease," he said in a statement.

"And it is dreadful for these children that gaps in immunisation in the community are allowing diseases such as diphtheria to creep back in, for the first time this century in New South Wales.”

Diphtheria, a bacterial disease that was a common cause of death among children in the 1940s has been detected in NSW. Source: Getty Images, file
Diphtheria, a bacterial disease that was a common cause of death among children in the early 1900s, has been detected in NSW. Source: Getty Images, file photo.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that is caused by strains of Corynebacterium diphtheriae and Corynebacterium ulcerans, NSW Health explains.

It affects the throat and tonsils in its most severe form, resulting in a greyish-white membrane forming that can make it hard to swallow and breathe.

It is usually spread from respiratory droplets after an infected person coughs or sneezes.

"Without antibiotic treatment, people with diphtheria are infectious for up to four weeks from when their symptoms first begin," NSW Health said.

"Some people are infectious for longer."

Mr Maher explained diphtheria spreads quickly within communities where there is lower vaccination coverage, and the detection of it indicates there are pockets of lower vaccination coverage.

Health care workers receive the flu vaccination injection at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
Cases of diphtheria in Australia are rare due to the high vaccination rate. Source: AAP

Parents urged to ensure child vaccines are up to date

He added the "extremely nasty disease", which can be fatal, is particularly severe in young children and lower vaccine coverage also puts the community at risk for other diseases such as measles.

“Two decades ago I saw first-hand how rapidly diphtheria spread through the former Soviet Union and Mongolia," he said.

"In Australia, we are fortunate to have a robust program of free vaccinations for children that protect them and the broader community, and I encourage parents to check their children’s vaccines are up to date and take these free vaccines up.”

Up until the 1940s, diphtheria was a common cause of death in children and it still is in countries with low immunisation rates. However, cases in Australia are rare due to the high vaccination rate.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

Anyone who is not full vaccinated against diphtheria is at risk of catching it.

Symptoms of diphtheria usually don't begin until two to five days after exposure, though in some cases, they can appear up to 10 days after exposure.

NSW Health says symptoms will depend on the site of infection.

"The most severe form of diphtheria affects the throat and tonsils," NSW Heath said.

"The first symptoms are usually a sore throat, loss of appetite and a mild fever.

Patient Boy lying on the patient bed in the hospital, to illustrate Diptheria
Diphtheria can spread quickly in communities where there is low vaccination coverage. Source: Getty Images, file

"Within 2-3 days, a greyish-white membrane forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it hard to swallow and breathe. The infection can also cause the neck to swell."

The toxin which is formed by diphtheria bacteria can also lead to inflammation of the heart muscle and the nerves — this can be fatal in five to 10 per cent of people infected with diphtheria.

Small skin sores which turn into large ulcers can sometimes occur due to diphtheria, however, this form is usually more common in the tropics.

How to prevent and treat diphtheria

The 'DTP' vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis which is known as whooping cough, is part of the childhood immunisation program.

In 2021, over 90 per cent of children in Australia were fully immunised against diphtheria and NSW says a high vaccination rate is key to protecting everyone from the disease.

Antibiotics and antitoxins are used to stop diphtheria infection from developing and a course of vaccination may be required if not immunised.

People who suspect they might have diphtheria are urged to go see their doctor and some people may require hospitalisation.

Do you have a story tip? Email: newsroomau@yahoonews.com.

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.