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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diphtheria Outbreak Reported Controlled

The biggest outbreak of diphtheria in the past two years took place at School No. 903 in south Moscow, health officials said Monday.

Thirteen students there developed the disease and 22 more are carriers, said Pavel Annenkov, chief physician at the Center for Sanitary Control for South Moscow.

Doctors from Clinic No. 40 and the school worked around the clock over the weekend to test all 1,440 students at the school in order to reopen it. The school has been closed since Jan. 27 and has been cleared to open Tuesday, said school director Lyudmila Kuzmina in a telephone interview.

The first to get sick was a 12-year-old seventh grader, who had returned from Christmas break and fell ill on Jan. 18, said Kuzmina.

"We did not panic at the time because all the children at the school had been immunized," she said.

However 35 more students, most of them from the second, fifth, and ninth grades, were taken to the hospital by Jan. 24, and the school closed down for disinfection.

Annenkov said one ninth grader suffered from complications, and was taken to intensive care. "But we managed to save him, and he is doing better."

"We do not understand how all these children who had been vaccinated, according to school records, could have contracted the disease. We are studying their immunization histories to find answers," said Annenkov.

Diphtheria is a highly communicable infection of the nose and throat, caused by bacteria transmitted by air. In the most acute cases, a diphtheria membrane can spread over a victim's throat, causing suffocation and death.

"Vaccinated children can contract the disease after exposure to the bacteria causing it. However, the number of deaths decreases dramatically after vaccination," said Dr. Sieghart Dittmann, chief of the World Health Organization's Unit of Communicable Disease and Immunization.

He said that it was impossible to explain why immunized children in Moscow became ill without knowing how many shots and the types of vaccines they received.

"The diphtheria epidemic started in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1991, spreading to all other CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] republics. Between 1991 and 1996, 200,000 cases have been reported in CIS -- about 100,000 of them in Russia alone," said Dittmann.

According to WHO data, between 1990 and 1996 more than 90 percent of all reported diphtheria cases in the world came from the former Soviet Union.

"Russians at that time had a lot of problems and did not have an aggressive booster shot and immunization program. In 1994, after three years of the epidemic, the Health Ministry adopted an aggressive public immunization plan," said Dittmann.

"Today 75 percent of the population had received at least one shot in the past five years, compared to 50 percent in 1990. They are finally getting the problem under control," he said.

According to the Center for Sanitary Control of the Russian Federation, the number of diphtheria cases in Russia decreased from 35,784 in 1995 to 13,604 cases in 1996.

Dittmann said that the outbreak at the Moscow school was significant because it showed that "the danger was not over."