An estimated 25 medical students at the Gulbarga Institute of Medical Sciences (GIMS) in Kalaburagi district in Karnataka have contracted diphtheria.
The outbreak of the disease has been traced to the GIMS Girl Hostel. Of the 25 cases, five have been treated at the outpatient department and were permitted to leave as their condition was deemed to be stable, though twenty are still at the hospital undergoing treatment.
Diphtheria is a condition caused by Corynebacterium diphtheria bacterium. The disease infects the throat and upper airways and has a mortality rate of between five and ten percent. In India, cases have been increasing in recent years, reaching a thirty year-high in 2018.
The disease is entirely vaccine-preventable, with the vaccine included in India’s Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP). As such, it is a concerning revelation that so many medical students contracted the disease at once, potentially implicating that a large number of students are either unable to avail a vaccination or are simply opting not to be vaccinated.
Vaccine coverage in India is deemed to be at the lowest point in a long period of time, with around ninety percent of the world’s diphtheria cases occurring in India. Vaccine coverage was estimated at around eighty percent in the 2015-16 period, falling short of the necessary levels to ensure herd immunity.
Diphtheria is spread in much the same way as the common cold or the flu — spreading through droplets produced either by sneezing or coughing — as such, it can spread rapidly when immunisation levels fall.
India’s urban centres are a prime breeding ground for infectious disease. Densely packed environments and crowded public transport allow for disease to pass swiftly across urban metropolises. Where immunisation coverage is low, this fact could prove devastating.
In the case of the students, 110 individuals residing in the girl’s hostel were screened by the ENT Department as they were suffering from fevers, sore throats and tonsil pain. One student was eventually diagnosed with diphtheria, which sparked the screening for the diagnosis of the other students suffering similar symptoms.
For a group of medical students — who, presumably, are well aware of the dangers of neglecting vaccinations — to have all been infected underlines the issue of negligence in the cases of diseases that are viewed as no longer being an issue. Diphtheria can be lethal, and efforts must be made to ensure high levels of immunisation occur, without which, outbreaks such as this may become common.