Diphtheria Outbreak Ravages Nigeria: Urgent Appeal for International Support

Nigeria is grappling with a devastating diphtheria outbreak that has infected thousands and claimed hundreds of lives.


With a shortage of critical antitoxin and low national vaccination rates exacerbating the crisis, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is urgently calling upon the international community to escalate their support for treatment, prevention, and contact tracing to halt the outbreak’s deadly spread.

Diphtheria’s Deadly Grip

Diphtheria, a highly contagious and potentially lethal bacterial disease, has wreaked havoc in Nigeria, affecting both the respiratory and cutaneous forms of the illness.

Without prompt intervention, this disease can prove fatal in up to half of those infected, with a five percent fatality rate even with treatment.

Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control declared an outbreak of diphtheria on January 20, 2023, and since May 2022, more than 6,000 confirmed cases have been reported.

In August 2023 alone, over 4,000 suspected cases emerged, with Kano state bearing the brunt of the crisis, accounting for over three-quarters of the cases.

MSF’s Crucial Response

Responding to this dire situation, MSF teams have been actively engaged in Kano, Borno, and Bauchi states.

However, the global shortage of life-saving diphtheria antitoxin, a vital component of treatment, has added to the complexity of managing the outbreak.

Dr. Hashim Juma Omar, an MSF emergency project medical doctor, stated, “We’re currently seeing more than 700 people with suspected diphtheria and admitting more than 280 patients on a weekly basis in Kano state’s two diphtheria treatment centres.”

While MSF was able to provide 2,000 doses of diphtheria antitoxin last month in Kano, the challenge lies in securing sufficient quantities of this critical resource.

“We have placed an urgent additional order of 5,000 doses to cover the needs in our projects, but still, it is not enough,” noted Dr. Omar.

Urgent Need for Vaccination

A fundamental component of controlling this outbreak is vaccination, as Nigeria grapples with low vaccination coverage.

Only 70 percent of children have received their first dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, which underscores the urgency of vaccination efforts.

In 2021, Nigeria reported 25 million un- or under-vaccinated children due to declining immunization rates.

Nevertheless, barriers to scaling up vaccination efforts persist, with Kano State alone requiring millions of doses to protect at-risk groups.

International Support and Urgent Action Required

In light of these challenges, MSF stresses the need for intensified efforts to curb disease transmission and fortify outbreak preparedness and response within Nigeria.

This includes securing funding for vaccines and their implementation. Bolstered surveillance, contact tracing, and health system strengthening are critical components of the response.

MSF’s teams are also actively addressing diphtheria in neighboring countries, such as Guinea, where support for the Ministry of Health began in mid-August.

More than 100 people have been admitted for treatment since MSF’s involvement.

The rising number of suspected cases in the region emphasizes the dire need to increase access to antitoxin drugs and initiate comprehensive vaccination initiatives.

As Nigeria faces this unprecedented health crisis, international solidarity and swift action are imperative to save lives and stem the tide of this deadly outbreak.

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