What is diphtheria and how is it spread?

Fears asylum seekers contracted the highly contagious disease before arriving in the UK

Cases of infections have been discovered at the UK's Manston immigration short-term holding facility in Kent.
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Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection that affects the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin.

It is a rare disease in the UK due to youngsters receiving vaccinations against it since the 1940s.

Diphtheria can be a serious illness and sometimes fatal, especially in children, if it’s not treated quickly.

There have been 50 known cases in migrants who have arrived in the UK on small boats.

Last week, the Home Office said the death of a man at the Manston processing centre in Kent may have been from a diphtheria infection.

Since 2018, the World Health Organisation has reported a rise in cases in places including Indonesia, India, South America and Africa.

How is diphtheria spread?

Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial infection. It is spread by coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who is infected.

You can also get it by sharing items, such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding, with an infected person.

Symptoms of diphtheria

Symptoms usually start two to five days after becoming infected.

They include:

  • a thick grey-white coating that may cover the back of your throat, nose and tongue
  • a high temperature
  • sore throat
  • swollen glands in your neck
  • difficulty breathing and swallowing

In countries with poor hygiene, infection of the skin is more common.

This can cause:

  • blisters on your legs, feet and hands
  • large ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin

Treatments for diphtheria

The main treatments are antibiotics to kill the diphtheria bacteria and medicines to stop the effects of the harmful substances produced by the bacteria.

Treatment usually lasts up to three weeks, with any skin ulcers usually healing within three months.

People who have been in close contact with someone who has diphtheria may also need to take antibiotics or may be given a dose of the diphtheria vaccination.

Updated: November 30, 2022, 9:26 AM