When Australians Contract Diphtheria

Home two weeks from Thailand, a young man named Pat discovered his foot was much bigger than it used to be. Pat didn't think much of it when he stepped on a piece of glass while travelling.

The injury wasn’t the end of the world, but he couldn't ignore it either. He pulled the shard from his foot and went about living his life. Then the foot swelled.

“… it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. I ignored it, as lots of young men would do, and I came home with it,” Pat told news.com. “I think my dad saw it about two weeks after I got home and he said, ‘You need to go to the doctor right now’.”

By the time Pat made it to the hospital to have them test it, he’d been living with diphtheria for weeks. The mistake could have cost his life or at least caused him a ton of discomfort.

Thankfully for Pat, he had someone looking out for him. This is his bizarre tale of contracting an ancient disease in modern times...  



The first recorded cases of diphtheria were in 5 BCE, made by Hippocrates. The infection comes from a bacteria.

What Pat experienced were mild symptoms, but they can be much, much worse. Sufferers often develop a sore throat, fever, and a swollen throat.

The swelling can progress enough to block the airway mandating a tracheotomy. Thousands die from complications due to diphtheria every year, but not in Australia.

Life in the developed world has almost eradicated words like diphtheria from our conversations. In a place like Australia, diphtheria is definitely uncommon but still part of the child vaccination process.

Because of this, the chances of contraction inside Australia are too finite to measure. Still, officials encourage Aussie travelers to places like Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even South America to vaccinate before leaving.

It’s not a mandate, as Pat discovered the hard way. He opted to skip the vaccinations.

The other challenge with diphtheria is that even exposure and recovery of the infection doesn’t prevent further contraction. One can contract the disease, recover, then get it again.




Pat is an IT professional in his Australian life. Like most professionals, he needs to break away from it all from time to time. So, he bought tickets to Thailand.

The plan was to attend one of Thailand’s notorious Full Moon parties. They are huge parties, massive in every sense of the word.

It’s not only the Full Moon party that draws young adults like Pat but the fringe parties, which pop up around the main event. It’s basically days of partying.

In Thailand, they do vaccinate but diphtheria is not uncommon to run into a little diphtheria hanging about. The vaccination methods are not as consistent as Australia.

To go from risk to infection, one only needs to combine a little socializing with a diminished sleep schedule, then add in an infected shard of glass, and presto! It's the perfect environment for transmission.

In Pat’s case, it was a piece of broken glass that did it.

“I stepped on a piece of glass that got stuck in my foot,” said Pat to news.com. “I ignored it for a little while, I got it out about four or five days later, and I just had a little cut on my foot.”

Four or five days later? Either Pat was on some really good medication [read: not prescribed] or the shard of glass in his foot was so small he couldn’t feel it.

This writer can’t last five minutes with a wisp of fiber between his teeth before flossing voraciously. I can't imagine a shard of glass that I couldn't feel...



[caption id="attachment_6792" align="aligncenter"]Brookvale_Render NSW Health Center (Not necessarily where Pat reported) | nbhsredev.health.nsw.gov.au[/caption]

The young IT worker survived long enough to make it home, but the swollen foot sent him to an NSW Health center for a look-see.

They swabbed Pat’s footed sent him off while they tested the sample. The next morning, NSW Health called Pat urging he seek care immediately.

After a handful of injections, and instruction on how to apply a cream, Pat returned home to treat his diphtheria. He recovered quickly.

“After they gave me the shots in my arm, a few days later the cut on my foot started to heal,” he said.

Pat recovered too quickly to see the more developed effects of diphtheria.

Had the hospital not tested him, he may not have known he had it until the symptoms mentioned previously showed up. By then, it may have been too late.

In Pat’s defense, he had no foreknowledge of diphtheria, because, why would he? One would have to reach back decades to find a generation who knew about the infection.

Even then they would only know of it as a story told about a distant relative.




Even as Australian authorities push back against the anti-vaccine forces with the “no jab, no play” policy, there are still holes in compliance.

Those who oppose vaccination believe beyond the pale that there is something sinister afoot. Every effort to dissuade them only further steels their resolve that big vaccination is a conspiracy.

For children who slip through the system and survive to adulthood without repercussions, but still want to travel, the best thing they can do is vaccinate before travel.

For our IT traveler, Pat, who knows what could have happened. His body fought diphtheria for around six weeks before he sought treatment.

That was without receiving a treatment before leaving Australia. Had he done that, he may never have known how close he came.

“I think the thing for me was that I didn’t go to the doctor before I went to Thailand, which I think is one of my errors,’” said Pat. “I didn’t get vaccinated for anything. I’ve learnt my lesson.”

For Pat, life went to normal. He was lucky. There are diseases more prevalent, more easily contracted than diphtheria Australians have to mind when traveling.

The Department of Foreign Affairs doesn’t play around on this issue.

In an article by news.com, Dr. Bernard Hudson, a disease specialist from Sydney had this to say:

“Holiday-makers who prioritise itineraries over their own health are putting themselves and potentially those around them at risk, especially if they’re visiting high-risk destinations,” said Hudson. “It doesn’t take much to get the right health advice before you take off.”

If we see our mundane jobs in IT as stressful, imagine facing serious illness or death at an early age. The easy choice is obvious. Before travel, see the doc.


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