By Kerushun Pillay
DURBAN, May 1– The resurgence of diphtheria, a contagious and potentially deadly disease, has caused health experts in South Africa to go on high alert.
Diphtheria is a bacterial disease which presents itself with symptoms similar to flu, and is most common in young children. It has claimed one life and left a further five critically ill in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Experts fear a risk of an outbreak if the cases aren’t given the utmost urgency and attention. A freely available vaccine, administered to babies at six weeks, easily prevents the disease. Further immunization, called boosters, are then given at 18 months, 6 years and 12 years.
A microbiology lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and consultant for the National Health Laboratory Services, Dr Yacoob Coovadia, says it is possible that this disease has come to light once again, because parents do not vaccinate their children regularly.
“One of the things that is possible is that this is related to vaccinations. That means, has something gone on with our vaccination programme? Is it possible that because they did not get the booster doses, that there was a resurgence of diphtheria in these children,” he asked.
“That’s the hypothesis because following those first three doses, the duration of immunity doesn’t last very long. So, in fact you have to have these booster doses.”
Treating diphtheria is a tough task. While antibiotics can cure the symptoms, the problem lies with a toxin produced by the diphtheria bacteria which if left untreated for two weeks, can enter the bloodstream, which could lead to organ failure. Dr Coovadia says diphtheria is not treated like many bacteria.
“The problem with diphtheria, unlike many other bacteria where you first need an antibiotic, and that will work. In diphtheria, besides the antibiotic, the damage is done by a toxin; you also need to give an antibody to the toxin. Now that’s where the whole problem comes in. There’s only one laboratory that does this toxin test. In South Africa we are no longer geared to even confirm that the organism produces a toxin,” says Coovadia.
The Member of the Executive Council (MEC) of KwaZulu-Natal for Health, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, says the last known incidence of diphtheria in South Africa was reported before 2009 and none of the cases were from KwaZulu-Natal.
Dr Dhlomo urged parents and caregivers to ensure that children are vaccinated, in an effort to stop a possible outbreak. “I’m calling upon all mothers, all our parents, care minders in the province to really come again into our health facilities where we give boosters and vaccinations to all children. If you have forgotten or have no information on what exactly has happened.
“By these boosters we give a child a way to survive, a sort of immunity against this disease. Once they don’t have it, they become susceptible to getting Diptheria and it is probably a very serious condition once you get it.”
While the medical fraternity is guarded about using the term “outbreak” when describing the number of diphtheria cases, experts are adamant that a proper vaccination programme is necessary to boost a child’s immunity and treat such preventable diseases.