Spanish authorities rush to stop spread of diphtheria

Medical authorities in Spain have extended testing for diphtheria to 30 new individuals, all family members of the eight children who were confirmed carriers of the bacteria earlier this week, in a bid to halt a potential spread of the disease.

The tests were prompted by news of Spain's first case of the disease since 1986. A six-year-old boy from the town of Olot near Girona, in the region of Catalonia, exhibited symptoms of diphtheria last month and it subsequently emerged that the boy's parents had not vaccinated him against diphtheria willingly, after being influenced by the anti-vaccine movement in the US.

Since then the boy has deteriorated and is now in a reportedly serious condition, fighting for his life at Vall d'Hebron hospital in Barcelona as eight of his schoolmates who were in contact with him also tested positive for the bacteria. However, they have not developed the disease as they have been vaccinated against it.

Now 30 relatives of these eight children have been tested with a throat swab and are being monitored by the Catalan region's public health agency (ASPCAT). There are fears that they may become carriers of the virus or even be infected themselves if they have not been immunized, Spanish daily newspaper El País reports.

The eight children have been quarantined and are being treated with antibiotics to combat the bacteria, as it can remain in a carrier's body for up to six months according to ASPCAT secretary Antoni Mateu.

Mateu has warned that "It will be difficult" to completely extend the investigation to everyone the children have been in contact with since last month as vaccinated persons can become asymptomatic carriers, still carrying the bacteria which could infect non-immunized persons without showing symptoms themselves.

He noted that it may be necessary for some people who have already been vaccinated to do so again if they are above the age of 40 as the vaccine grows less effective over time.

The unprecedented health scare has prompted the Catalan government to form a crisis cabinet in the administrative district of La Garrotxa which encompasses the boy's hometown of Olot. According to the region's health chief the district has experienced a 23% surge in vaccinations since the news of the infection broke, although 3% of children remain unvaccinated.

The diphtheria case has prompted a debate in Spain about whether or not vaccination should be made compulsory.

According to the Spanish Ministry of Health only 5% of parents in the country do not want to vaccinate their children, however the Spanish Pediatrics Association highlighted that it is still troubling that this number has increased in recent years, news daily El Confidencial reports.

The Catalan minister of health has urged citizens to vaccinate children but stressed that this is only a recommendation as he does not have the authority to force anyone to get vaccinated. Meanwhile the infected boy's parents have said they feel "terrible guilt" over not vaccinating the child.