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Diphtheria is an infection of the back of the mouth, causing a sore throat, malaise and high temperature. A membrane is formed in the throat that may cause breathing difficulties, sometimes serious enough to necessitate a tracheotomy – the surgical making of a hole directly into the windpipe (trachea) so that the sufferer is able to breathe. The main danger of diphtheria lies in the poisonous toxin it produces, which can spread to the heart and nerves, where it can cause serious illness or even death. Though full recovery is normal, and outbreaks appear more likely to occur amongst those living in poverty and overcrowding, the chances of healthy victims dying are probably between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20.

Though the disease killed thousands of children every year in the early part of the 20th century, it is now thankfully very rare; there are no more than a handful of cases in the UK every year. However, a school-age child did die from diphtheria in London during April 2008.

Picture courtesy CDC