Healthy North Coast

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Tetanus: What Is It and Why Protect Against It?

The recent case of tetanus on the North Coast where an unvaccinated seven-year-old girl was rushed to Brisbane in a critical condition has stirred up a lot of emotion. Tetanus has been preventable for years, so why are we still seeing cases?

An investigation has now been launched into the case, but in the mean time we thought we would offer some insight into tetanus: what it is, what causes it, and how best to prevent it.

The girl remains at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Hospital where she is in a stable condition.

What is Tetanus?

Tetanus (some call it lockjaw) is a severe bacterial disease that can result in serious illness or death.

What causes tetanus?

Tetanus is a bacteria live in soil, dust and manure (particularly horse manure). Infection occurs when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin. Symptoms occur between three days and three weeks after infection. Most cases occur within 14 days. Generally, if symptoms appear very quickly, the infection is severe. Tetanus is not transmitted from person to person.

Things to remember about Tetanus

  • Tetanus is a serious bacterial disease that causes muscle spasms and breathing problems.
  • Tetanus is uncommon in Australia because of the widespread use of the tetanus vaccine.
  • If you get a wound that has a high risk of tetanus and you have not been immunised in the last 10 years (five years for pregnant women), you should visit your doctor as soon as possible.
  • The best prevention against tetanus is immunisation.

What are the symptoms of Tetanus?

Early symptoms of tetanus include:

  • Painful muscle spasms that begin in the jaw (lock jaw)
  • Stiff neck, shoulder and back muscles
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Violent generalized muscle spasms
  • Convulsions
  • Breathing difficulties

What are the complications of Tetanus?

The extremely serious and potentially lethal complications of tetanus can include:

  • Suffocation
  • Broken bones (from the muscle spasms)
  • respiratory failure
  • pneumonia
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • heart attack.

How do I protect myself against Tetanus?

Immunisation protects against tetanus. In NSW, the tetanus vaccine is available in a number of combined immunisations that also contain vaccines against other serious and potentially fatal diseases.

Protection against tetanus is usually given at these intervals:

  • 2 months, 4months and 6 months of age
  • 18 months of age – as a booster vaccine
  • 4 years of age – as a booster vaccine
  • 12-17 years of age – as a booster vaccine given through the school based program
  • Individuals, who received a primary course of 3 doses as adults, should receive booster doses 10 and 20 years after the primary course
  • Adults who have sustained a tetanus prone wound (eg. fracture, bite wounds, contaminated wounds or burns) should disinfect the wound and seek medication attention and receive a booster of tetanus vaccine if more than 5 years has passed since their last dose
  • Pregnant Women (third trimester) – Combination vaccines containing diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough protection are recommended during the third trimester of every pregnancy or as soon as possible after delivery of the baby
  • Overseas travellers often need a booster – check with your doctor.

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