How is Diphtheria Controlled?

Diphtheria is a serious disease. It is caused by bacteria, and illness starts a few days after the bacteria enter the body. The bacteria usually enter the body through the mouth and nose, and infect the throat first.

Usually there is a sore throat, fever, and a feeling of being unwell. A grey or pale membrane appears over the tonsils and back  of the throat. The infection may spread into the larynx (voice box) and block air passages there.

Diphtheria has serious effects on other parts of the body, too. They are caused by toxins, or poisons, given off by the organism. The heart and nerves may be seriously injured.


Children, especially between the ages of two and five, are most likely to have diphtheria. The cause of diphtheria is a tiny, rod shaped bacillus (a form of bacteria). the bacillus was discovered in 1883.

After it was discovered that this organism produced the toxin causing the disease, the next step was to prepare an antitoxin which could make the toxin causing the disease, the next step was to prepare and antitoxin which could make the toxin harmless.

This was done by a man called Emil Von Behring in 1890. the antitoxin can prevent the serious poisonous effects of the disease although the bacteria and throat infection are still present.

Diphtheria is far less common now that it can be partly prevented. The toxin can be treated in a way that makes it harmless. When this harmless toxin (called “toxoid”)  is injected into a person, it causes antibodies to be formed which protect the body from the bacteria.

The amount of immunity to diphtheria that a child has is found by a test invented by Bela Schick in 1913. A small quantity of diphtheria toxin is put into the skin.

If the child does not have enough antitoxin, a red spot appears there from four to seven days later. In this way, children who might otherwise get the disease can be treated to protect them from the bacteria.   

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