Peru reports first diphtheria case in 20 years amid low vaccination rate

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru reported its first case of diphtheria after 20 years following warnings by international health organizations that the coronavirus pandemic would hamper routine vaccination programs, particularly for children.

The Andean nation’s Public Health Vice Minister Luis Suarez reported on Tuesday night that a 5-year-old girl living in the capital Lima had been diagnosed with the infectious respiratory disease.

He said the government had issued a national epidemiological alert to detect other potential cases, bolster vaccinations and curb any potential wider outbreak.

Diphtheria chiefly affects the throat and upper airways, causing dead tissue to build up and making it difficult to breathe. It is spread through physical or respiratory contact and has an incubation period of two to five days. In severe cases mortality “can exceed 10%,” said Suarez.

The last time a case was reported in Peru was in 2000, though the Pan American Health Organization warned in 2019 of its presence in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Haiti.

Peru has been one of the worst-hit countries in the world by the coronavirus. It has recorded 892,000 cases and 34,200 deaths.

The United Nations warned in July that immunizations against dangerous diseases, including diphtheria, had dropped alarmingly during the pandemic, with three-fourths of 82 countries reporting disruption to their programs in a May survey because of shortages of protective equipment for health workers, travel restrictions and low staffing.

In Peru, health authorities had issued just 40% of their planned diphtheria and tetanus vaccinations, when it should have been be around 70% by this time of year, Vice Minister Suarez said.

“Vaccination coverage has been low, especially in children under one year of age, across the continent this year,” he told a news conference.

Suarez said the affected girl was in a stable condition in a hospital and was being monitored closely by doctors.