All patients, including the deceased, fall within the age group of 18 to 23 years old.
The health department on Thursday confirmed a diphtheria outbreak at the Pollsmoor Correctional Centre in the Western Cape.
This after a 19-year-old male inmate presented with diphtheria symptoms on 28 October and was referred to the local hospital for further medical care, according to departmental spokesperson Foster Mohale.
Throat swabs were collected the same day for culture laboratory testing and the results came back positive on 2 November.
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“Unfortunately, his health condition continued to deteriorate until he regrettably passed away on the 5th November,” said Mohale.
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Public health measures were undertaken, including contact tracing of inmates and correctional services staff, consulting healthcare workers and emergency services personnel.
Of the 55 identified close contacts, eight inmates tested positive for diphtheria, two of them presenting with mild symptoms and the other six are asymptomatic.
Immediate contacts of the patients and the deceased have been put in isolation from the rest of the correctional centre section to prevent further spread of the disease.
Two staff members displayed symptoms compatible with diphtheria and have received treatment while waiting for laboratory test results.
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“The Western Cape Department of Health Disease Outbreak Team working together with the Department of Correctional Services, have embarked on a vaccination campaign in the affected section of the correctional centre,” said Mohale.
The first two cases of diphtheria were recorded in May, from an adult in KwaZulu-Natal and a child in the Western Cape.
What is diphtheria?
According to the health department, diphtheria is an uncommon, but vaccine preventable serious infection caused by a toxin producing bacterium called Corynebacterium diphtheria.
The toxin may lead to difficulty in breathing, heart rhythm problems, and even death. The bacteria spreads from person to person, usually through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing.
The symptoms of diphtheria include sore throat (with the formation of a membrane on the tonsil and throat), and swollen glands in the front of the neck. Close contacts of known cases are at increased risk of infection.
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In South Africa, diphtheria-containing vaccine is offered to all children free of charge in public sector facilities at 6, 10 and 14 weeks and 18 months (as one component of the hexavalent vaccine).
Booster doses are offered at 6 and 12 years, and to all Grade 5 pupils in public schools during the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) PV vaccination campaign.
The department has called on parents to get their children vaccinated.