We’re all familiar with a couple of the vaccine preventable diseases that are threatening Americans’ health these days simply because too few Americans are being vaccinated. The most recent report from the CDC shows extremely high flu activity in Texas and many other states, even in March. Measles cases have been occurring here as well, with larger outbreaks in New York, New Jersey and Washington state.
But the most recent news has been about a disease that isn’t even contagious – in other words, one person can’t catch it from another. Unlike with many other diseases, getting this infection once doesn’t mean people are immune in the future. Before the vaccine was developed, the disease, caused by bacterial spores, killed 472 Americans a year; now the number is four.
Have you guessed yet? The disease is tetanus, and it resulted in a long, painful and difficult hospitalization for a little boy in Oregon, including more than seven weeks in the intensive care unit. Though the case occurred two years ago, it is receiving enormous attention after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a paper this past week in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
According to that report, the 6-year-old boy was playing at a farm when he suffered a laceration on his forehead. The wound was cleaned and sutured at home. “Six days later, he had episodes of crying, jaw clenching, and involuntary upper extremity muscle spasms, followed by arching of the neck and back (opisthotonus) and generalized spasticity,” the CDC report says.
The boy was taken by helicopter to the hospital, where he needed multiple medications, a ventilator and a darkened room and earplugs because noises and lights worsened his pain and spasms.
“The boy required 57 days of inpatient acute care, including 47 days in the intensive care unit,” the CDC reported. Not counting the helicopter, inpatient rehabilitation and follow-up visits, his hospital bill added up to more than $800,000.
Reading about his symptoms is heart-wrenching. His condition caused racing heart, high blood pressure and fever as well. “He was treated with multiple continuous intravenous medication infusions to control his pain and blood pressure, and with neuromuscular blockade to manage his muscle spasms,” the report says. “A tracheostomy was placed on hospital day 5 for prolonged ventilator support.”
And he had not been protected with any of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccines that are supposed to start when babies are 2 months old. He was given his first dose in the hospital, but even after his terrible ordeal, his parents refused to allow any further vaccinations. He needs those shots to prevent such a thing from happening in the future; according to the World Health Organization, “People who recover from tetanus do not have natural immunity and can be infected again.”
This was the first case of pediatric tetanus in Oregon in more than 30 years, and it’s terrible to read about a child going through such agony for nearly two months. No child should suffer this way, and no child’s life should be endangered by tetanus, when there is a safe and effective vaccine readily available. Remember also that the tetanus vaccine is on the immunization schedule for adults, who should get a Td booster every 10 years.
We’ve already beaten tetanus. Why would we allow it to start threatening us again?