40 dead due to diphtheria since January 2019, but no outbreak – DOH

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Health (DOH) saw a slight increase in cases of diphtheria this year, recording a total of 167 cases and 40 deaths from January to September 2019.  

This is slightly higher than figures from the same period in 2018, with 122 cases and 30 deaths. “The reasons for the trend are being investigated,” according to a DOH statement.  

Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo said Thursday, September 26, that the cases do not constitute an outbreak, nor has there been any continuous transmission. He added that the trend is so far “not threatening.”

Fears concerning the vaccine-preventable disease come amid the health department’s confirmation that a 10-year-old elementary school student from Manila died of the disease. The girl died Friday, September 20, hours after being diagnosed with diphtheria. She developed rashes and mouth sores, ABS-CBN and Philippine Star reported. 

The development follows the series of measles, dengue, and polio outbreaks in the country.

Anthony Calibo of the DOH also told senators on Tuesday, September 22, during a hearing on vaccination, that cases of the disease have been emerging in some parts of the Philippines. The medical specialist also said the department had been facing issues of availability of the diphtheria anti-toxin, which is used for treatment of the disease. 

Diphtheria is an infectious bacterial disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheria. The bacterium infects the throat and the upper respiratory tract (nose, nasal passages, paranasal sinuses, pharynx). It may develop into an illness with an acute onset, characterized by sore throat, fever, and swollen glands in the neck.

The bacterium also produces a toxin that may affect other organs. The said toxin, in severe cases, can cause the inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) and damage to nerves that send signals to and from the brain and spinal cord (peripheral neuropathy). 

The toxin can also cause the buildup of dead tissue in the throat and tonsils, leading to difficulty in swallowing and breathing. 

Diphtheria is spread through direct physical contact or from infected peoples' coughing and sneezing.  

“Now more than ever, the importance of protecting our infants and children from vaccine-preventable diseases remains paramount,” the DOH said, calling on parents and guardians to have their kids vaccinated against the disease. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says a 3-dose primary vaccination series against the disease should begin as early as 6 weeks, and 3 subsequent doses given with a minimum interval of 4 weeks between each dose. 

“Antibiotics for diphtheria, namely penicillin, erythromycin, clarithromycin, and azithromycin, are also locally and commercially available,” the agency added. Rappler.com