Diphtheria case detected in UK school – symptoms to spot

A case of a highly contagious and deadly disease has been confirmed at a UK school. Health officials are warning parents to take caution after one person at Wigmore Primary School in Luton tested positive for diphtheria.

A major cause of death during the Victorian era, diphtheria had become rare in modern times due to the introduction of routine vaccination. However, in the past 10 years the number of cases in England has risen from an average of two to 11 per year, excluding 2020.

Diphtheria is typically spread by coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who is infected. But you can also get it by sharing items, such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding, with an infected person.

Experts at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have said they are aware of the case. The government agency said it is “working closely” with local and national partners to ensure all necessary public health measures are put in pace.

A risk assessment conducted by the UKHSA has also identified any close contacts of the affected individual. But they stated that the risk of infection among the wider community is low.

Wigmore Primary School confirmed the diphtheria case in a letter seen by The Sun. According to the letter, the individual “has been on treatment and is recovering well”.

The school has said that risk to other children is “low” but they were sending out the information as a precaution.

However, anyone who thought they were experiencing symptoms should “seek urgent medical attention”.

Doctor Sultan Salimee, consultant in communicable disease control at UKHSA East of England, said: “Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat.

“Infections of diphtheria are rare in England because most people have been immunised against it.

“The individual concerned has been treated and is recovering well. The risk to the wider public is very low.”

The best protection against diphtheria is vaccination. “If any close contacts are not fully vaccinated against diphtheria, their vaccinations should be boosted,” Dr Salimee said.

“Completing the course of vaccinations remains the most effective way for people to protect themselves against becoming ill with diphtheria.”

In the UK, diphtheria vaccines are routinely offered to babies at the age of eight, 12 and 16 weeks old. It is then offered again at three years and four months, and 14 years old.

However, the number of 14-year-olds receiving their booster fell by seven percent in 2022.

Remaining unvaccinated leaves you highly vulnerable to the bug, which can go on to cause large ulcers and pus-filled blisters if not treated. In severe cases it can even cause death.

Symptoms to spot 

Symptoms of diphtheria usually start two to five days after infection and include:

  • A thick grey-white coating that may cover the back of your throat, nose and tongue
  • A high temperature (fever)
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands in your neck
  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing.

According to the NHS, if the skin becomes infected it can cause:

  • Pus-filled blisters on your legs, feet and hands
  • Large ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin.

You should seek urgent medical help if you notice symptoms and if you’ve been somewhere where there’s been an outbreak or come into contact with an infected person.

The NHS adds: “Diphtheria needs to be treated quickly in hospital to help prevent serious complications, such as breathing difficulties or heart problems.”

Wigmore Primary School had not responded to a request for comment by the time this article went live.

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