Diphtheria outbreak among asylum seekers in Europe, including Belgium

The highly contagious diphtheria disease is circulating among asylum seekers in Europe. Since the beginning of this year, 92 infections have been identified, including three in Belgium. One person has died from the infection, the European health service ECDC reported on Thursday.

The disease has been confirmed in Belgium, Germany, France, Britain, Norway, Austria and Switzerland. Most confirmed cases occur in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, but three cases have also been reported in Belgium, the ECDC report said. Fedasil, the federal agency for the reception of asylum seekers, clarified that the three migrants in Belgium were found to be infected with the mild variant, cutaneous diphtheria or skin diphtheria.

Reception centres

The infected people are mostly from Afghanistan and Syria. One person who contracted the virus was working in a reception centre for asylum seekers in Switzerland. All the people who tested positive are men, and most of the infections were detected in the asylum reception centres themselves.

According to the ECDC, the rise may be related to an increase in the number of migrants from countries where diphtheria is still common. It is possible that diphtheria is also on the rise in those countries. In addition, it could be that the bacteria circulate easily in reception centres. There is no evidence that the virus is spreading among residents of European countries.

Diphtheria can be caused by two bacteria. After infection, skin, lungs, heart, nervous system and kidneys can be damaged. People can contract the bacteria through someone else's cough, but diphtheria also spreads through infected animals, unpasteurised milk and contaminated food.

Diphtheria used to be a major cause of death in children. Since universal vaccination was introduced in Belgium in 1959, diphtheria has virtually disappeared.

Between 2016 and 2021, an average of 50 cases were reported annually in Europe, the ECDC report shows. In Belgium, nearly four cases were reported annually on average during that period. In 2020 and 2021, three infections were confirmed in our country each time.


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