Diphtheria is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The disease is a bacterial infection in the upper respiratory tract. Symptoms include weakness, sore throat, fever, swollen neck glands, and difficulty breathing. The breathing difficulties associated with diphtheria are the result of a thick gray coating in the nose or throat called a “pseudomembrane.” Formed from the dead tissue caused by the toxin that is produced by the diphtheria bacteria, the pseudomembrane can build up over the nasal tissues, tonsils, voice box, and throat. In addition to breathing difficulties, the toxin is also absorbed in the blood stream causing damage to the heart, kidneys, and nerves. Diphtheria is spread through the air and through direct contact with an infected individual.
Before treatments for diphtheria became available, approximately half of the victims died from the illness. In 1921 alone, the United States recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria, which resulted in 15,520 deaths, a death rate of 7.5%. During the 1920s, vaccination against diphtheria became widespread throughout the United States and other countries. In the last decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded less than 5 cases of diphtheria in the United States. However, in 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 4,887 cases of the disease worldwide, indicating the need for more universal vaccination efforts.
The Diphtheria Vaccine
Diphtheria is highly preventable with vaccination. Four combinations of vaccines are available in the United States to prevent the illness: DTaP, Tdap, DT, and Td. All four of the vaccines prevent both diphtheria and tetanus. The DTap and Tdap vaccines also prevent pertussis, or the whooping cough. Children under the age of 7 years old receive the DTap and DT vaccines while older children, teenagers, and adults receive the Tdap and Td vaccines.
Current vaccination schedules recommend that children under the age of 6 receive a total of five doses of the diphtheria vaccine at two months old, four months old, six months old, between fifteen and eighteen months old, and between four and six years old. Preteens should receive a booster shot between eleven and twelve years old. Adults should receive a diphtheria booster every ten years. All individuals, barring a legitimate medical issue contraindicative to vaccination such as an allergy to the ingredients in the vaccine or a compromised immune system, should receive the diphtheria vaccine.
Diphtheria Vaccine Complications
As with all vaccines, minor reactions to the diphtheria vaccine include pain and redness at the injection site, headache, fatigue, low fever, diarrhea, body aches, or a vague feeling of discomfort. The minor side effects of the vaccine generally do not require medical attention.
Less common but serious side effects include crying for more than three hours in young children and fainting. Rare but serious side effects include confusion, seizures, difficulty breathing or swallowing, high fever, severe or continuing headache, hives, itching, low blood pressure, reddening of the skin, shock, unusual and continuing sleepiness, facial swelling, unusual and severe tiredness, and severe vomiting. The serious side effects of the vaccine generally require medical attention. However, serious reactions to the diphtheria vaccine are extremely rare.
The benefits of the diphtheria vaccine outweigh any potential side effects. Furthermore, the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risk of contracting diphtheria.
Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Acellular Pertussis Booster Vaccine (Intramuscular Route): http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/drug-information/DR600471
Diphtheria Vaccination: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/diphtheria/default.htm
Diphtheria Vaccine: http://www.flickr.com/photos/armymedicine/7070617883/