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Am J Public Health. 1985 Dec;75(12):1393-7.

Diphtheria in the United States, 1971-81.


After a decade-long resurgence, including a large cutaneous diphtheria outbreak in Washington State, the diphtheria incidence rate in the United States reached its lowest recorded level ever in 1980--two patients (0.01 case per million). Mortality paralleled the decline in incidence rate. Only 143 of the 3,141 US counties reported noncutaneous diphtheria patients during 1971-81; most were located in the West. The highest attack rates were experienced by children less than 15 years old (0.8 case per million) and by American Indians (22.6 cases per million). Persons immunized with three or more doses of diphtheria toxoid had a lower death-to-case ratio (1.3 per cent) than totally unimmunized persons (13.4 per cent). The reasons for the dramatic decline in diphtheria incidence rates are unclear, although it has been postulated that the gene for producing diphtheria toxin may be lost from organisms in highly immunized populations. Significant proportions of the adult and elderly populations are susceptible to diphtheria. Continuation of primary immunization with increased emphasis on the routine use of tetanus and diphtheria toxoids (Td) boosters in adults should ensure that diphtheria will remain largely a scourge of the past.

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