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Diphtheria is a potentially fatal bacterial infection. It is highly contagious, spread by coughs, sneezes and close contact. Thanks to vaccines, it is a disease that has been largely forgotten in the UK, Europe and the US, but it has not been eradicated and vaccination remains important to keep it at bay.

Symptoms and complications of diphtheria include fever, a thick coating at the back of the throat, difficulty breathing and swallowing, heart inflammation (myocarditis), neurological problems, bladder problems and kidney failure. Even with the best care, 5% of people infected with diphtheria will die from complications of the disease.

Diptheria cases and deaths 1914 to 2014Diptheria cases and deaths 1914 to 2014

Graph based on one produced by Public Health England


All children in the UK should be vaccinated against diphtheria as part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule. It is first offered as part of the 5-in-1 vaccine (also known as the DTaP/IPV/Hib) that is given to babies at two, three and four months old. The 5-in-1 vaccine also protects against tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis), polio and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).

Adults should consider having a booster vaccine before travelling to areas where diphtheria is widespread such as South and South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Brazil.



November 2015

Despite state-funded vaccines, cases of diphtheria in Latvia have doubled in the last three years while being all but eradicated in other EU countries.

June 2015

A 6-year-old boy in Spain contracted diphtheria and subsequently died, the first reported case in Spain since 1986. The boy's parents had chosen not to vaccinate him. 8 other children were found to be carrying the disease but all had been vaccinated and none developed symptoms. The source of the infection was not identified.