Diphtheria is an infectious, bacterial disease which affects the throat and upper airways. in the past, the disease has disproportionally affected children but mortality rates dropped severely following the widespread introduction of a vaccine in the 1930s. The disease is airborne, spreading easily through a cough or sneeze.
A recent article by NPR’s Goats & Soda discusses the rise of diphtheria in areas of conflict and the possibility of outbreaks elsewhere. We tend to expect health issues to arise in areas where people are crammed together, often in areas where hygiene is lacking, malnutrition is rampant and overcrowding is nearly inevitable. Two areas currently experiencing outbreaks are Bangladesh and Yemen. In Bangladesh, an influx of Rohingya refugees who have already endured mental and physical trauma and a number of health issues have led to six diphtheria deaths in one settlement. In war-torn Yemen over 30 diphtheria deaths have occurred, most of them in children, even though life-saving medicine was just hours away. In areas where less than 80% of the population is vaccinated, malnutrition is high and living conditions are overcrowded there is a heightened risk of an outbreak.
When diphtheria arises, so does panic. The mere name recalls ancient diseases like the plague, smallpox and measles. An outbreak in New England in 1730 was responsible for the deaths of nearly 1/3 of all children under 10. Today, diphtheria is both preventable and easily treated. While the disease can be prevented through ensuring a well-vaccinated population, limited access to medicines greatly increases the potential of an outbreak.
photo credit: UN