HEALTH ALERT: How to avoid this rare, deadly disease

A CASE of a very rare bacterial disease which was thought to be effectively wiped out through vaccination has been officially diagnosed on the Sunshine Coast.

Queensland Health has confirmed a case of non-contagious diphtheria was diagnosed on the Sunshine Coast last week.

"Cases of diphtheria are rare in Australia, due to the introduction of an effective vaccine," a Queensland Health spokesman said.

But it brings the total number of cases diagnosed in Queensland to six this year so far, more than double previous years.


A child with a severe case of diphtheria causing the classic bull neck symptom.
A child with a severe case of diphtheria causing the classic bull neck symptom.

Two cases were diagnosed in the last week alone, one in Brisbane and one on the Sunshine Coast.

The Brisbane case was contagious and people in contact with the woman involved are being notified.

"The Metro North Public Health Unit became aware ‪on Friday evening of a woman from the northern suburbs of Brisbane who has a wound which is infected with the type of bacteria which causes diphtheria," the health spokesman said.

"Over the weekend Public Health is following up people who may have been exposed to ensure they are protected from what can be a severe infection. People are protected by vaccination but people who have had a lot of exposure may need antibiotics or a booster vaccination."

The Federal Government's Health website advises diphtheria is a "potentially life-threatening bacterial disease that usually affects the upper respiratory tract, but can also infect the skin".

"In the early 1900s, diphtheria caused more deaths in Australia than any other infectious disease," the health website reads.

"Increasing use of vaccines has led to its virtual disappearance. No vaccinated person has died from diphtheria in Australia in the last 20 years."

The father of the Sunshine Coast man diagnosed with diphtheria blamed the rise of the anti-vaccination lobby for his son's illness.

The man, who asked to remain anonymous, said his son had been seriously ill and it could have been far worse if he had not been vaccinated against the disease as a child.

He also urged people to be aware of the signs.

"All he had at the start was a sore throat," he said.

"But it got so bad the doctor gave him a jab of penicillin before it was officially diagnoses.

"His throat had swollen up."

The Queensland Health spokesman said most cases of diphtheria were picked up overseas.

"We continue to see some travellers who have acquired this bacteria overseas," he said.

"We have had six notifications in 2016 up from the usual two to three notifications.

"It highlights the importance of being fully vaccinated before travelling overseas not only against exotic diseases but what used to be common diseases in Australian such as measles and diphtheria. These are still common in many overseas countries." 

But the man said his son had not travelled overseas and wondered if it was people who had come over here who weren't immunised who infected his son.

"My children are fully immunised and they are probably luck they are.

"If he hadn't been immunised, he might not be here today. This disease shouldn't be here in Australia."

He was waiting for confirmation his other son hadn't been infected too.

Diphtheria symptoms:

  • Signs of diphtheria appear within two to five days after the infection occurs, but symptoms appear up to 10 days after exposure.
  • Symptoms will depend on the type of diphtheria infection. 
  • With respiratory diphtheria a person can experience a sore throat, fever, enlarged lymph nodes and swelling of the soft tissues on both sides of the neck sometimes referred to as a 'bull neck'.
  • Within two or three days a membrane (a white or grey film) forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it difficult for the person to swallow and breathe.
  • Laryngeal diphtheria affects the voice-box. It most commonly occurs in children and is characterised by gradually increasing hoarseness and stridor (noisy breathing).
  • Nasal diphtheria is usually a mild but chronic illness. It is characterised by a nasal discharge which starts out clear but later becomes blood-stained.
  • Cutaneous diphtheria affects the skin, and usually appears as small ulcers on exposed limbs, particularly the legs.

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