Diphtheria case in Spain sparks EU alert over lack of anti-toxin reserves

Infection of six-year-old has highlighted shortage of medication that can fight the disease

Elena G. Sevillano
The parents of the sick child had refused to immunize him.
The parents of the sick child had refused to immunize him.GETTY IMAGES

Europe does not have enough medication to treat a hypothetical outbreak of diphtheria, an infectious disease that had, until recently, practically disappeared from the continent thanks to massive vaccination campaigns.

The recent case of a a child who has contracted diphtheria in Spain – his parents had not had him vaccinated – has alerted EU authorities to the fact that there are no significant reserves of the DAT anti-toxin, which is required to treat the life-threatening disease.

Unless the European health systems have immediate access to DAT, there is a risk that patients with toxicogenic diphtheria will not receive treatment in time”

The European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) said that dealing with this shortage as soon as possible is an “urgent” matter.

“Unless the European health systems have immediate access to DAT, there is a risk that patients with toxicogenic diphtheria will not receive the treatment in time to optimize its effect,” said the ECDC in a release on Monday.

Spain was forced to issue an international call for help to find the DAT anti-toxin for the sick child, as the last case of diphtheria was recorded 28 years ago and any existing doses had expired long ago. In the end, the Russian ambassador to Spain managed to bring in the required medication from his country. The six-year-old boy, who had not been immunized against the disease because of his parents’ opposition to vaccines, was taken to hospital where he has remained in critical condition since late May.

More information
Parents of diphtheria-stricken boy feel “tricked” by anti-vaccination groups
Diphtheria-stricken child still in serious condition, says hospital
Diphtheria bacteria detected in eight children in Girona
Six-year-old diagnosed with first case of diphtheria in Spain since 1987

Europe has no reserves of vaccines, anti-toxins or any other pharmaceutical products, the agency told this newspaper last week. Responsibility for creating a common reserve pool falls to the European Commission, it said.

The Spanish Health Ministry did not reply to EL PAIS’ inquiry regarding possible plans to purchase and store reserves of the diphtheria anti-toxin.

Catalan public health authorities announced last week that they had detected the presence of diphtheria bacteria in eight children who had contact with the six-year-old boy from Olot (Girona) who was confirmed as having contracted the disease. Speaking at a press conference last Monday, the health chief for the region, Boi Ruiz, said the eight children in question “had not developed the disease thanks to them having been vaccinated,” but that they had been confined to their homes in order to prevent them infecting the three percent of children in the Garrotxa area who had not been vaccinated.

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