Tetanus is a disease that affects the muscles and nerves, and is a rare but serious condition. It’s caused by a bacterium known as Clostridium
tetani, which is present in cultivated and virgin soil. Although tetanus can’t be transmitted from person to person, infants are particularly vulnerable and an adult can become ill if he or she has never been immunized, or has not been given a booster shot for more than ten years.
Tetanus is infrequent in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, but in Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries the disease kills thousands of children a year. In places with inadequate health care services, cases of tetanus often go unreported and many neonatal deaths occur in the home. Therefore, the disease is allowed to flourish. What are the symptoms of tetanus and how can the disease be stopped?
Initial Stages of Tetanus
When outside, cuts and scrapes are liable to happen when working in the garden, nailing pieces of wood together for a home renovation, or just playing around. An open wound anywhere on the body is a way for Clostridium tetani spores to enter the bloodstream. Once inside the body, the bacterium produces a toxin that germinates near the wound site. Then the toxin interferes with neurotransmitters released by the brain, blocking inhibitory impulses. The most noticeable physical symptom of tetanus is lockjaw: muscle stiffness that makes it hard to open the mouth or swallow.
The toxin amplifies the chemical signal between the nerve and the muscle, so the next stage of the disease is the most painful. After the disease attacks the muscles around the face and neck, the abdominal muscles are next. They are “locked” in a continuous spasm, making it difficult to breathe. Artificial respiration might be necessary. As a result of prolonged muscle contractions, tetanus patients can appear to have a weird, steady grin or smile on the face and elsewhere in the body the constant pressure may cause bones to break.
How Tetanus is Treated
Even though this is the twenty-first century, there is no cure for advanced cases of tetanus. Patients can only recover by an extended stay in a hospital and subsequent rehabilitation. The good news is that although tetanus can be life-threatening, it’s preventable with vaccines.
Children should be given shots at two, four, six, and around eighteen
months of age. After the final dose at the four-year mark, a booster should
be administered once every ten years throughout teenage and adult life.
Tetanus shots are often given in conjunction with diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccines.
When people think of tetanus, an image of getting sick after stepping on a rusty nail usually comes to mind. If the wound is cleaned quickly and a visit is paid to a doctor to get an additional round of antibiotics and/or shots, there is little to be concerned about. It would be a far different matter in an unsanitary environment, which encourages bacteria to multiply. Nobody is immune from dirty wounds. That’s probably why
tetanus has ceased to be a problem in industrialized nations.