fever; cough; sore; throat; immunisation; infection; bacteria; germs;
Diphtheria used to be a very serious disease. In the early 1900s diphtheria (say 'dip-thee-ree-a') caused more deaths in Australia than any other infectious disease (illnesses that are spread from person to person by germs).
Have you ever visited an old graveyard? It is sad to see that whole families of young children used to die within a few weeks of each other from diphtheria before immunisation started.
What is diphtheria?
- Diphtheria is an infection caused by bacteria (germs).
- It affects the throat, tonsils and nose.
What does it look like?
- Fever, sore throat, swollen neck glands, swollen neck and a runny nose.
- Something which looks like a spider web could appear on the back of the throat or in the nose and as it grows it blocks the throat making it difficult to breathe.
- Some of these germs make a toxin (poison) which can affect other parts of the body too, eg. the heart or the brain.
- The person feels very sick and it causes death for about 1 in 10 children and adults who get it.
How do you get it?
When someone sneezes or coughs the droplets shoot out a long way and land on anyone who is around. That’s why it’s a good idea to cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing, so that any germs you may have do not rush out and make other people sick. This is the way that many germs such as the flu spread, not just diphtheria.
Germs can also be spread by used tissues or handkerchiefs. Another good idea is to flush used tissues away or put them in a bin, and then wash your hands. Few people use cloth handkerchiefs nowadays but if you do then make sure other people can’t touch it and spread your germs around!
How to avoid diphtheria
Make sure that you are immunised against diphtheria! In Australia children have 4 doses of the vaccine before they are 5 years old, then another one when they are about 15 years old. Adults need to have another dose when they are 50 years old.
The first vaccines to protect people from diphtheria were developed about 100 years ago, but it was not until the 1940s that most people in Australia were immunised against diphtheria.
This has meant that the disease is now very rare in this country.
Some people feel that there is no point in immunising against diphtheria as it is now so rare BUT, there are many parts of the world where diphtheria still makes large numbers of people sick - places where the immunisation program does not work for some reason (maybe a war or no money for health programs.)
As people move around the world there is a risk that diphtheria could be brought into Australia by a traveller and kill many young people like it did before, unless they have been immunised. Australians could also get diphtheria if they have not been immunised and they go somewhere where people still have diphtheria. Your parents will need to ask your doctor about what countries are unsafe.
If someone you know gets diphtheria
Anyone who has diphtheria has to be isolated, together with their family until they have been treated with antibiotics and immunised.
Anyone who has been in contact with someone who gets diphtheria needs to be checked out by a doctor.
The doctor has to report the disease so that others can be protected from it.
If your family is going to travel overseas it is a good idea to check with your doctor to see if you need to have other vaccinations to keep yourself safe from diseases you would not come across in Australia.
Ask the 'oldies' in your family if they are up to date with their 'shots'.
You can help them find out what immunisations you and they need by looking at the Australian Government immunisation website:
We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.