A toddler is in intensive care and a second child has been hospitalised after contracting the first cases of diphtheria of the throat in New South Wales. Diphtheria is a contagious and potentially deadly bacterial infection. It affects the throat and tonsils in its most severe form, resulting in a greyish-white membrane forming that can make it hard to swallow and breathe.
The North Coast Public Health Unit confirmed the case in a two-year-old child in northern NSW on Saturday. On Sunday, a six-year-old described as a “close family contact” was also confirmed to have the infection. The infection can also cause the neck to swell, according to NSW Health, while the toxin formed by bacteria can cause inflammation of the heart muscle and nerves. This can be fatal in five to 10% of people infected.
The toddler and the other child were not vaccinated against diphtheria, and their family members and other close contacts have received post-exposure prophylaxis to reduce the risk of transmission. Post-exposure prophylaxis can include antibiotics and immunisation.
The younger child is in an intensive care unit at a Queensland hospital and has received diphtheria antitoxin, antibiotics and respiratory support. The older child is being cared for at a Northern NSW hospital, where they were admitted as a precaution.
There is no ongoing risk to the broader community but families should be alert and review their children’s immunisation status, North Coast Public Health director Paul Douglas said. “Diphtheria is very rare in Australia due to our longstanding childhood immunisation program. However, the disease has very serious outcomes and can be fatal. The diphtheria vaccination is free and readily available from your GP for everyone from six weeks of age.”
No other cases of diphtheria of the throat have been reported in NSW this century but less-serious cases have been reported on rare occasions. They have mainly involved skin infections.
Diphtheria was a common cause of death in children up until the 1940s but it now occurs mainly in countries with poor immunisation levels, according to NSW Health.
The infection is spread through coughing and sneezing, and can also spread by contact with contaminated surfaces.