Acute infectious bacterial disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The bacterium usually enters through the tonsils, nose, or throat and multiplies there, forming a thick membrane that adheres to the tissues and sometimes blocks the trachea, requiring emergency treatment.The bacteria produce a toxin that spreads to cause other symptoms, including fever, chills, sore throat, and lesions in heart muscle and peripheral nerve tissue that may cause death from heart failure and paralysis. Diphtheria is treated with an antitoxin that neutralizes the toxin and produces long-term immunity. Vaccination has greatly reduced its occurrence in Europe and North America.
Learn more about diphtheria with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Diphtheria causes the progressive deterioration of myelin sheaths in the central and peripheral nervous system leading to degenerating motor control and loss of sensation. Diphtheria is a contagious disease spread by direct physical contact or breathing the aerosolized secretions of infected individuals. Once quite common, diphtheria has largely been eradicated in developed nations through widespread vaccination. In the United States for instance, there were 52 reported cases of diphtheria between 1980 and 2000; between 2000 and 2007 there were only five cases as the DPT (Diphtheria–Pertussis–Tetanus) vaccine is given to all school children. Boosters of the vaccine are recommended for adults since the benefits of the vaccine decrease with age without constant re-exposure; they are particularly recommended for those traveling to areas where the disease has not been eradicated.
Diphtheria was also prevalent in the British royal family during the late 19th century. One famous case includes Queen Victoria's second daughter, Princess Alice of Hesse and her family. Princess Alice died of diphtheria after she contracted it from her children in December 1878 while nursing them. One of Princess Alice's own daughters, Princess May, also died of diphtheria in November 1878.
One of the first effective treatments for diphtheria was discovered in the 1880s by U.S. physician Joseph O'Dwyer (1841–1898). O'Dwyer developed tubes that were inserted into the throat, and prevented victims from suffocating due to the membrane sheath that grows over and obstructs airways. In the 1890s, the German physician Emil von Behring developed an antitoxin that did not kill the bacterium, but neutralized the toxic poisons that the bacterium releases into the body. Von Behring discovered that animal blood has antitoxins in it and so he took the blood, removed the clotting agents and injected it into human patients. Von Behring was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Medicine for his role in the discovery, and development of a serum therapy for diphtheria. (Americans William H. Park and Anna Wessels Williams; and Pasteur Institute scientists Emile Roux and Auguste Chaillou also independently developed diphtheria antitoxin in the 1890s.) The first successful vaccine for diphtheria was developed in 1913 by Behring. However, antibiotics against diphtheria were not available until the discovery and development of sulfa drugs following World War II.
The Schick test, invented between 1910 and 1911, is a test used to determine whether or not a person is susceptible to diphtheria. It was named after its inventor, Béla Schick (1877–1967), a Hungarian-born American pediatrician. A massive five-year campaign was coordinated by Dr. Schick. As a part of the campaign, 85 million pieces of literature were distributed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company with an appeal to parents to "Save your child from diphtheria." A vaccine was developed in the next decade, and deaths began declining in earnest in 1924.
Diphtheria toxin catalyzes the ADP-ribosylation of, and inactivates, the elongation factor eEF-2. In this way, it acts to inhibit translation during eukaryotic protein synthesis. The toxin enters the host cell and is hydrolysed by a trypsin-like protease to give a fragment with enzymatic activity. The toxin then transfers an ADP-ribose from NAD+ to a diphthamide residue, a modified histidine (amino acid), which is found within the EF-2 protein. EF-2 is needed for translocation of tRNA from the A-site to the P-site of the ribosome during translation. The ADP-ribosylation is reversible by administering high concentrations of nicotinamide, one of the reaction products.
In addition to symptoms at the site of infection (sore throat), the patient may experience more generalized symptoms, such as listlessness, pallor, and fast heart rate. These symptoms are caused by the toxin released by the bacterium. Low blood pressure may develop in these patients. Longer-term effects of the diphtheria toxin include cardiomyopathy and peripheral neuropathy (sensory type).
The cutaneous form of diphtheria is often a secondary infection of a preexisting skin disease. Signs of cutaneous diphtheria infection develop an average of seven days after the appearance of the primary skin disease.
Empirical treatment should generally be started in a patient in whom suspicion of diphtheria is high.
Antibiotics have not been demonstrated to affect healing of local infection in diphtheria patients treated with antitoxin. Antibiotics are used in patients or carriers to eradicate C. diphtheriae and prevent its transmission to others. The CDC recommends either:
Diphtheria is a serious disease, with fatality rates between 5% and 10%. In children under 5 years and adults over 40 years, the fatality rate may be as much as 20%. Outbreaks, though very rare, still occur worldwide, even in developed nations. After the breakup of the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, vaccination rates in its constituent countries fell so low that there was an explosion of diphtheria cases. In 1991 there were 2,000 cases of diphtheria in the USSR. By 1998, according to Red Cross estimates, there were as many as 200,000 cases in the Commonwealth of Independent States, with 5,000 deaths. This was so great an increase that diphtheria was cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as "most resurgent disease".