Small boat crossings linked to 'sharp increase' in diphtheria 

Small boat crossings have led to a “sharp increase” in diphtheria cases in the UK and across Europe.

Outbreaks seen across the continent over the past year have been “mostly linked to incoming migrants”, Researchers at the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID) said.

The ESCMID report highlights how 73 cases of the disease were recorded in England in 2022 overall – up from 12 cases the previous year – and one further case was recorded in 2023.

Most of the patients (97%) were “young Afghan males” aged under 18 with “unknown vaccination history” – although the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) notes that this group may be “over-represented” due to “greater clinical awareness and case ascertainment” among the demographic.

Around half of those infected presented with skin problems caused by the disease, which can include blisters on the legs, feet and hands, and large ulcers.

Some 12% had no symptoms, and the disease in these cases was picked up through screening or contact tracing.

Speaking about data for Europe as a whole, the researchers said there had been “evident transmission among migrant people” which they believed had occurred “during travel within migrant facilities”.

They added that “a lack of proper vaccination among the migrant people” was the reason for the outbreaks.

Diphtheria, a highly contagious bacterial infection which can be fatal, is rare in the UK because babies and children have been routinely vaccinated against it since the 1940s.

To avoid future diphtheria outbreaks, the researchers recommended “increased awareness among physicians who provide care to migrants”, “thorough vaccination protocols” and “timely screening of at-risk individuals”.

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