A six-year-old child diagnosed with diphtheria remained “in a very serious condition” on Wednesday morning, said sources at Vall d’Hebron hospital in Barcelona.
The child is the first recorded case in Spain of the infectious disease since 1987, when the last two patients were treated.
EL PAÍS has learned that the reason the child had not been immunized against the disease is that his parents oppose vaccines.
Vaccination rates in Spain are between 90 and 95 percent following systematic public health campaigns that began in 1945. Thanks to these efforts, the dangerous disease had been eradicated. Diphtheria attacks the respiratory system and several of the body’s organs, and can prove fatal.
The right to vaccination is for children, it's not for the parents to decide”
Rubén Moreno, general secretary for the health service
Now, Catalan health officials are working to locate all the people who were in touch with the child before he developed the symptoms of diphtheria. Soon before getting sick, he had been to a school camp.
Around 150 individuals are currently under surveillance for signs of the disease and are receiving preventive medication, said the Catalan Public Health Agency.
The child developed the first symptoms on May 23, and by May 28 the local hospital in Olot, his place of residence, informed state health authorities that they had reason to suspect a case of diphtheria. A sample was sent to the National Microbiology Center, which confirmed the suspicions.
At that point, Spanish health authorities were faced with the problem that they lacked the anti-toxin necessary to treat the patient, since it had not been prescribed for three decades.
Spain issued an international alert, and asked the World Health Organization, as well as the US government, for help locating the necessary medication.
In the end, the Russian ambassador to Spain managed to get a dose flown in from Moscow, with more vials expected to arrive on Wednesday night.
Antoni Trilla, an epidemiologist at Clínic hospital in Barcelona, said it will not be easy to find the origin of the contagion, since the original carrier could be someone who suffered a light form of the disease and continued to carry the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae inside his or her throat. Diphtheria is spread by coughing or sneezing near other people.
In recent years, campaigns against vaccinations – due to their perceived health risk – have gained ground among parents, particularly in the United States. General secretary for the health service, Rubén Moreno, called these campaigns “irresponsible.” He continued: “The consequences of not vaccinating a child can be dramatic. The right to vaccination is for children, it's not for the parents to decide.”