Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that usually affects the nose and throat. Most patients become infected after inhaling the bacteria and develop thick, gray membranes in the back of their throats that may cause difficulty breathing. However, if the bacteria enter a wound, diphtheria may affect the skin instead. Some individuals may become infected with the bacteria but only experience mild, if any, symptoms. These individuals are called carriers because they can still spread the infection to others.
In the past, diphtheria was considered a leading cause of death among children. However, diphtheria is now considered a rare disease in the United States because individuals are routinely vaccinated shortly after birth. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than five cases have occurred each year since 1980. Most cases of diphtheria occur in unvaccinated or inadequately vaccinated populations.
The infection is still common in developing countries that do not have access to immunizations. For instance, in the 1990s, Russia and the independent countries of the former Soviet Union experienced serious outbreaks of diphtheria, which caused about 5,000 deaths. These areas have since gained access to the diphtheria vaccine, which has significantly decreased number of diphtheria outbreaks. However, the circulation of diphtheria has not yet been eliminated from the region.
Treatment is available for individuals who develop diphtheria. Patients typically receive antibiotics, antitoxins, and intravenous (IV) fluids. If left untreated, diphtheria can cause serious complications in the advanced stages of the disease. Patients are at risk of experiencing extreme difficulty breathing, heart damage, kidney damage, and nerve damage. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 10% of patients with diphtheria die from complications.
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