Health minister confirms diphtheria outbreak in two provinces

19 May 2023 - 10:07
Diphtheria is prevented by immunisation. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/rawpixel Diphtheria is prevented by immunisation. Stock photo.

Health minister Dr Joe Phaahla has confirmed there is an outbreak of diphtheria in South Africa. 

Diphtheria is a contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection spread through contact with respiratory droplets or hand-to-mouth contact with secretions from an infected person’s mouth, nose, throat or skin, according to the National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD). 

“We have two laboratory-confirmed cases, one from Western Cape and one from KwaZulu-Natal,” said the national department of health. 

Phaahla called for “calm and vigilance” after confirmation of the two cases. 

Symptoms include sore throat, fever and swollen glands.  

The department urged anyone with symptoms and suspected cases to seek medical attention.

The NICD previously addressed frequently asked questions about diphtheria which included: 

• Who can get diphtheria?

Children who are not immunised or who did not complete the Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) schedule are at increased risk. Adults may also be at risk of contracting diphtheria if the organism is present in the community because adult immunity after vaccination wanes with time.

Susceptible people living in crowded conditions are at increased risk of getting the disease.   

• Where does diphtheria occur in South Africa?

Diphtheria is an uncommon disease in the country. Since the implementation of diphtheria immunisation in South Africa in the 1950s, only sporadic cases, mostly involving children aged under 15 years, have been identified and reported.

Between January 2008 and March 2015 three laboratory confirmed cases of respiratory diphtheria were reported: two from Western Cape (March 2008 and January 2010), and one from Eastern Cape  (March 2009).

An outbreak in KwaZulu-Natal involving 15 confirmed cases occurred during March to June 2015. Two cases of diphtheria were identified in KZN in 2016.   

• How can diphtheria be prevented?

By immunisation with diphtheria-containing vaccine.


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