To: Editors & Health Journalists
Issued by: Department of Health
Date: Thursday, 18 May 2023

Minister Phaahla calls for vigilance as SA detects Diphtheria cases

: The Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla is calling for vigilance and for the public not to panic as the country records two positive cases of Diphtheria disease. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a Division of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) has alerted the department of two laboratory-confirmed cases of diphtheria disease that were detected in April 2023. The first case was in in an adult in KwaZulu-Natal and the second case was in the Western Cape in a child.

Diphtheria is an uncommon, but vaccine preventable serious infection caused by a toxin producing bacterium called Corynebacterium diphtheria. The toxin may lead to difficulty in breathing,  heart rhythm problems, and even death. The bacteria spreads from person to person, usually through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing.

The symptoms of diphtheria include sore throat (with the formation of a membrane on the tonsil and throat), and swollen glands in the front of the neck. Close contacts of known cases are at increased risk of infection. Routine diphtheria vaccination is part of the childhood vaccine programme and parents are encouraged to get their children vaccinated. The vaccine should be given to all children as part of the routine vaccines in the first year of life. Booster doses at the age of 6 and 12 years should also be given.

Catch up vaccination is possible if doses have been missed. Diphtheria antitoxin is in short supply globally; the World Health Organization is working to secure additional supplies of antitoxin. Treatment in the absence of anti-toxin is appropriate antibiotics and supportive care.

These cases are a reminder that a drop in vaccine coverage may lead to more cases. All parents are urged to make sure that their children are up to date for routine vaccines. Children who are not up to date for vaccines should be taken to the nearest clinic for vaccination. Clinicians (including primary health care nurses) throughout the country have been urged to have a high index of suspicion for diphtheria, and to notify suspected cases and to send specimens to the laboratory for testing.

Laboratories are encouraged to screen all throat swabs for diphtheria and send all confirmed cases to the Centre for Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis at the National Institute for  Communicable Disease (NICD).

For all technical enquiries, please contact Professor Cheryl Cohen: Head of the Centre for Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis, National Institute for Communicable Diseases at or Sinenhlahla Jimoh on 0826099514

For media enquiries, please contact:
Mr Foster Mohale
Health Departmental Spokesperson

Mr Doctor Tshwale
Spokesperson for Health Minister
063 657 8487