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Diphtheritic polyneuropathy: a clinical study and comparison with Guillain-Barré syndrome
  1. Inara Loginaa,
  2. Michael Donaghyb
  1. aDepartment of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Medical Academy of Latvia, P Stradin’s Clinical Hospital, 13 Pilsonu St, Riga, LV-1002, Latvia, bDepartment of Clinical Neurology, University of Oxford, Radcliffe Infirmary, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6HE, UK
  1. Dr I Logina, Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Medical Academy of Latvia, P Stradin’s Clinical Hospital, 13 Pilsonu St, Riga, LV-1002, Latvia.


OBJECTIVES AND METHODS Clinical features of 50 adults with diphtheritic polyneuropathy (DP) were studied in Riga, Latvia and compared with 21 patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS).

RESULTS Neurological complications occurred in 15% of patients admitted to hospital with diphtheria and usually after severe pharyngeal infection. Bulbar dysfunction occurred in 98% of patients with DP and only 10% of patients with GBS. Limb weakness was mild or absent in 30% of patients with DP. Ventilation dependent respiratory failure occurred in 20% of patients with DP. The first symptoms of DP occurred 2–50 days after the onset of local diphtheria infection. Neurological deterioration in DP continued for a median of 49 (range 15–83) days and improvement started 73 (range 20–115) days after onset. In 66% of patients with DP, the neuropathy was biphasic with a secondary worsening after 40 days. By contrast patients with GBS worsened for only 10 days on average (range 2–28 days) and improved after 21 (range 4–49) days. Eight patients with DP died, four from severe cardiomyopathy and four from multiple diphtheritic organ failure. Prolonged distal motor latencies (DMLs) were common to both DP and GBS, and more pronounced than motor conduction slowing. Limb symptoms continued after 1 year in 80% of the patients with DP, 6% were unable to walk independently, but independent respiratory and bulbar function had returned in all survivors. By comparison no patients with GBS died and none were severely disabled after 1 year. No death, in patients with DP occurred after antitoxin on days 1 or 2 after onset of diphtheria symptoms, whereas identical rates of death and peak severity of DP were seen both in those who received antitoxin on days 3–6 and those who did not receive it at all.

CONCLUSION Diphtheric polyneuropathy is much more likely than GBS to have a bulbar onset, to lead to respiratory failure, to evolve more slowly, to take a biphasic course, and to cause death or long term disability. Antitoxin seems ineffective if administered after the second day of diphtheritic symptoms.

  • diphtheritic polyneuritis
  • clinical features
  • outcome
  • diphtheritic antitoxin
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome

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