Wed, 15 Jan 2003

Diphtheria outbreak kills nine children

Yuliansyah The Jakarta Post Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan

Health officials in the South Kalimantan regency of Banjar advised residents of Aluh-aluh district on Tuesday to curb outdoor activities following an outbreak of diphtheria that has killed nine children over the past six months.

Head of Banjar Health Office Rosihan Adhani said that the district had been temporarily isolated after the death of the children aged between one and nine.

Diphtheria is a contagious disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria with a common symptom of sore throat. Usually affecting children, the illness is transmitted through saliva.

Rosihan said that his office had declared the diphtheria outbreak an extraordinary circumstance that occurred for the first time in the district in the past decade. The district is a home to 1,370 people.

He said that to control the disease, his office had established an emergency post in Simpang Warga Luar village within Aluh-aluh district.

The public's lack of information on the disease has contributed to the rapid spread of diphtheria, according to Rosihan.

Hundreds of parents, in an attempt to be cautious, panicked due to the outbreak and believe that the disease could only be cured by traditional medicines. They prefer going to traditional healers instead of seeing doctors at community health centers.

People who suffer from diphtheria show similar symptoms like a lack of appetite, swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck and lesions appear at the back of the throat which looks like a thick fibrous membrane. As the disease develops, the membrane often obstructs the airway and results in suffocation of a patient.

"We are convinced that such symptoms are caused by magical substances or supernatural creatures," said one of the residents in Simpang village.

In fact, it is a molecule of diphtheria toxin that kills a cell in the human heart or central nervous system which often causes death. The bacteria of C. diphtheriae can produce 5,000 molecules of such toxin in one hour.

"To prevent the worst possibility of infection that the epidemic can bring, I urge children not to play outside their houses," Rosihan said, adding that his office had also screened children who had yet received the tetanus-whooping cough vaccination (DPT).

The diphtheria vaccine is part of the DPT which is given in infancy. The vaccine, however, does not give life-long immunity so it requires a booster shot every 10 years.

Generally, a doctor will give a passive immunization with an antitoxin to those who are suspected of having the disease already.

In addition, penicillin or erythromycin is given in a bid to stop further growth of the bacteria and to prevent the patient from becoming a carrier after recovery.