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Keywords:

  • Corynebacteria;
  • diphtheria;
  • screening

Clin Microbiol Infect 2011; 17: 519–525

Abstract

Diphtheria is now rare in most European countries but, when cases do arise, the case fatality rate is high (5–10%). Because few countries continue to routinely screen for the causative organisms of diphtheria, the extent to which they are circulating amongst different European populations is largely unknown. During 2007–2008, ten European countries each screened between 968 and 8551 throat swabs from patients with upper respiratory tract infections. Six toxigenic strains of Corynebacterium diphtheriae were identified: two from symptomatic patients in Latvia (the country with the highest reported incidence of diphtheria in the European Union) and four from Lithuania (two cases, two carriers); the last reported case of diphtheria in Lithuania was in 2002. Carriage rates of non-toxigenic organisms ranged from 0 (Bulgaria, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy) to 4.0 per 1000 (95% CI 2.0–7.1) in Turkey. A total of 28 non-toxigenic strains were identified during the study (26 C. diphtheriae, one Corynebacterium ulcerans, one Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis). The non-toxigenic C. ulcerans strain was isolated from the UK, the country with the highest reported incidence of cases due to C. ulcerans. Of the eleven ribotypes detected, Cluj was seen most frequently in the non-toxigenic isolates and, amongst toxigenic isolates, the major epidemic clone, Sankt-Petersburg, is still in circulation. Isolation of toxigenic C. diphtheriae and non-toxigenic C. diphtheriae and C. ulcerans in highly-vaccinated populations highlights the need to maintain microbiological surveillance, laboratory expertise and an awareness of these organisms amongst public health specialists, microbiologists and clinicians.