In the past diphtheria was a major cause of death among children. Thanks to widespread vaccination in Belgium since 1959, diphtheria has almost disappeared from our country. But the bacteria are still in circulation and vaccination is the only way to prevent diphtheria.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a highly contagious infectious disease that affects the mucous membranes, especially those of the upper respiratory tract and skin.

It is caused by the Corynebacterium bacteria:

  • C. diphtheriae (most common)
  • C. ulcerans
  • C. pseudotuberculosis.

The Corynebacterium bacteria can produce the diphtheria toxin, causing the development of pseudomembranes and complications mainly located in the heart and peripheral nervous system.

Bacteria that produce the toxin are called “toxigenic” (tox +). Bacteria that do not produce toxin are called “non-toxigenic” (tox -).


Sciensano performs epidemiological surveillance of diphtheria and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Sciensano centralises and analyses data provided by various partners and also coordinates certain studies or surveillance networks. Accordingly, it can observe the “trends” (figures) for diseases such as diphtheria.

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