What is diphtheria, what are the symptoms and how does it spread?

At least 50 cases of diphtheria are thought to have been identified in asylum seekers in England this year, despite the disease being incredibly rare in the UK.

Sky News unveiled a man who died after being in Manston migrant treatment center in Kent had the disease.

Health officials have now raised concerns that some migrants with suspected diphtheria have been relocated from downtown Manston to other parts of the country.

Here, Sky News explains what we know about the contagion.

What is Diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection caused by a bacterium called Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which produces a toxin that makes people sick.

That toxin kills healthy tissue within the respiratory system, causing nose and throat problems.

It can also infect the skin, causing blisters and ulcers.

What are the symptoms?

It takes two to three days for the toxins to start killing the respiratory tissue. At this point, a thick gray coating appears inside the nose and throat and causes the following symptoms:

• Difficulty swallowing and breathing
• Sore throat
• Enlarged glands in the neck
• High temperature

Diphtheria can spread to the skin, which can also cause:
• Pus-filled blisters on legs, feet and hands
• Large ulcers surrounded by red, sore skin

In severe cases, the toxin can enter the bloodstream and cause heart, kidney or nerve damage, even resulting in death, but this is incredibly rare in people who have been vaccinated.


Diphtheria is very rare in the UK as people have been routinely vaccinated against it since the 1940s.

Vaccines are usually combined with tetanus and polio vaccines. NHS data for 2021-22 showed an uptake of 91.8%.

In the UK, children are given three doses at eight, 12 and 16 weeks – then again at three years and four months – before a booster dose at 14 years.

Read more:
The man who died in Manston had diphtheria
Thousands to be vaccinated in Manston after infection

You can get additional booster shots if you travel to a country where diphtheria is still a risk and your last shot was 10 or more years ago.

Since 2018, the World Health Organization has identified an increase in cases in Indonesia, India, South America and Africa.

Cases among asylum seekers in Europe are thought to have been on the rise since October.

How does it spread?

Infected individuals are highly contagious and can spread the disease by coughing, sneezing or being in close contact with someone else.

You can also get infected by sharing items with an infected person such as clothes, bedding, cutlery and cups.

How is it treated?

The best way to avoid diphtheria is through vaccination.

Treatments include:
• Antibiotics (which kill bacteria)
• Medicines that stop the effects of harmful toxins produced
• Regular cleaning of skin wounds caused by diphtheria

Treatment takes two to three weeks, but skin ulcers can take two to three months to heal and can leave scars.

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