Diphtheria is a nasopharyngeal and skin infection caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Toxigenic strains of C. diphtheriae produce a protein toxin that causes systemic toxicity, myocarditis, and polyneuropathy. The toxin is associated with the formation of pseudomembranes in the pharynx during respiratory diphtheria. While toxigenic strains most frequently cause pharyngeal diphtheria, nontoxigenic strains commonly cause cutaneous disease.
C. diphtheriae is a gram-positive bacillus that is unencapsulated, nonmotile, and nonsporulating. The organism was first identified microscopically in 1883 by Klebs and a year later was isolated in pure culture by Löffler in Robert Koch’s laboratory. The bacteria have a characteristic club-shaped bacillary appearance and typically form clusters of parallel rays, or palisades, that are referred to as “Chinese characters.” The specific laboratory media recommended for the cultivation of C. diphtheriae rely upon tellurite, colistin, or nalidixic acid for the organism’s selective isolation from other autochthonous pharyngeal microbes. C. diphtheriae may be isolated from individuals with both nontoxigenic (tox–) and toxigenic (tox+) phenotypes. Uchida and Pappenheimer demonstrated that corynebacteriophage beta carries the structural gene tox, which encodes diphtheria toxin, and that a family of closely related corynebacteriophages are responsible for toxigenic conversion of tox– C. diphtheriae to the tox+ phenotype. Moreover, lysogenic conversion from a nontoxigenic to a toxigenic phenotype has been shown to occur in situ. Growth of toxigenic strains of C. diphtheriae under iron-limiting conditions leads to the optimal expression of diphtheria toxin and is believed to be a pathogenic mechanism during human infection. Less commonly, diphtheria-like disease may be caused by Corynebacterium ulcerans and Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis, which express the same toxin and are considered members of the C. diphtheriae group (discussed below).
While in many regions diphtheria has been controlled in recent years with effective vaccination, there have been sporadic outbreaks in the United States and Europe. Diphtheria is still common in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Indian subcontinent, where mass immunization programs are not enforced. Large-scale epidemics of diphtheria have occurred in the post–Soviet Union independent states. Additional outbreaks have recently been reported in Africa and Asia. In temperate regions, respiratory diphtheria occurs year-round but is most common during winter months.
C. diphtheriae is transmitted via the aerosol route, usually during close contact with an infected person. There are no significant reservoirs other than humans. The incubation period for respiratory diphtheria is 2–5 days, but disease onset has occurred as late as 10 days after exposure. Prior to the vaccination era, most individuals over the age of 10 were immune to C. diphtheriae; infants were protected by maternal IgG antibodies but became susceptible after ~6 months of age. Thus, the disease primarily affected children and nonimmune young adults.
The development of diphtheria antitoxin in 1898 by von Behring and of the diphtheria toxoid vaccine in 1924 ...