Diphtheria detected in Spain

WHO has been informed of a confirmed case of diphtheria in Spain, detected on 30 May 2015. A young child who had not been immunized against the disease is very ill and is currently being treated with an antitoxin.

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection, usually spread through coughing or sneezing. Once in the respiratory system, the bacteria that cause diphtheria produce a poison (toxin) that can cause weakness, a sore throat, a fever and swollen glands in the neck. Even with treatment, the disease can lead to serious complications, including death in approximately 10% of cases.

There has not been a case of diphtheria in Spain for 28 years. This is primarily due to the very high vaccination coverage (over 95%) in the country.

Vaccination protects against infectious diseases

Vaccination is the best way to prevent diphtheria. The WHO-recommended vaccination series against diphtheria, usually given in combination with tetanus and pertussis, is safe and effective and is part of the routine immunization schedule in every Member State of the WHO in the European Region. During 2013, about 84% of infants worldwide (112 million) received 3 doses of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP3) vaccine, protecting them from infectious diseases that can cause serious illness and disability or that can be fatal. By 2013, 129 countries had reached at least 90% coverage of DTP3 vaccination.

Nevertheless, immunization gaps continue, fuelled in part by hesitancy and complacency over vaccination among some parents. Large outbreaks of diphtheria in the European Region in the 1990s, leading to thousands of cases, demonstrated the risk of allowing pockets of vulnerability to accumulate over time. The potential resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases is therefore a constant threat that demands vigilance in raising awareness among parents, optimizing immunization programmes and strengthening disease surveillance.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe is in contact with the Spanish Ministry of Health and the national immunization programme and providing support, as required.