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A health worker fills a disposable injection with a medicine.— AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: An outbreak of diphtheria, a deadly infectious disease that causes severe breathing problems, has claimed the lives of at least 39 children across the country, sending the healthcare authorities looking for help from the international health bodies.

Despite claims of an increase in routine immunisation rates in the country, at least 39 children and teenagers succumbed to the vaccine-preventable disease, which was wiped off from most parts of the world.

Responding to Pakistan’s call, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have decided to provide anti-diphtheria serum or antitoxin to the authorities.

The officials said that UNICEF was making arrangements to provide anti-diphtheria serums, while WHO is also making efforts in this regard.

Paediatricians said that the diphtheria outbreak was due to the non-availability of the pentavalent vaccine and anti-diphtheria serum.

As per the officials, production of anti-diphtheria serum has largely reduced due to the eradication of the disease across the globe.

“Diphtheria is a lethal bacterial infection, a vaccine-preventable disease; however, every week dozens of diphtheria cases are being reported from Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan while suspected cases are also being reported from Azad Jammu and Kashmir”, an official of the National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHS,R&C) said.

Infectious disease experts and paediatricians are blaming the flawed federal and provincial vaccination projects for this surge, calling for an immediate overhaul of the federal and provincial Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI).

According to experts, diphtheria is a serious infection caused by strains of bacteria called ‘Corynebacterium diphtheria that make toxins. It can lead to breathing, heart rhythm problems, and even death. Pakistani children are given a vaccine, a combination of five vaccines that protects from five major diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenza type b (DTP-hepB-Hib).

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