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A Shot in Time: Tetanus and Earthquake Victims

A Shot in Time: Tetanus and Earthquake Victims


A Shot in Time: Tetanus and Earthquake Victims

by Jen Long

Photos on newspaper front pages across the nation this month have shown the latex gloved hands of medical workers giving tetanus vaccinations to the stunned survivors of Haiti's earthquake. Why would a preventative injection that we consider as part of a mundane medical routine be in such high demand when the basics of food and water have not yet been met for these dispossessed people?

Tetanus tops the list, along with gangrene, as one of two of the most hazardous consequences of Haiti's earthquake victims' wounds. It is estimated that only 50% of that country's children have been vaccinated against tetanus. The percentage of vaccinated adults is drastically lower. Almost all tetanus infections occur in those who have never been vaccinated or those who do not have boosters within ten years.

It has been a long-held and common misunderstanding, somewhere along the lines of an old wives' tale, that tetanus or "lockjaw" is caused by puncture wounds from rusty nails, especially those found around old horse barns. For decades, the U.S. has successfully practiced tetanus prevention through routine vaccination and booster shots to the extent that many times we tend to think of "lockjaw" as an infection from historical times. We rarely think of how tetanus may affect a population that has not yet had such preventative care.

While it is true that the tetanus bacteria (clostiridium tetani) can thrive in an anaerobic environment (low oxygen) such as a rusted nail, the infectious spores are present everywhere throughout soil and animal feces. Horses are more susceptible to this bacteria living in their intestines than other animals but by no means are the sole or major contributors to its presence. Tropical countries' warm and humid climate, like that of Haiti, provide an even more fertile environment for tetanus spores to propagate.

The neurotoxin (tetanospasmin) which is present in the tetanus bacteria (clostiridium tetani), disrupts the nervous system, causing fever and acute muscle spasms. These spasms can eventually restrict the patients' airway, depriving them of oxygen and causing brain damage leading to death. With the risk of such a life-threatening infection of any deep wound caused by any object, it is a simple and life-saving rule to ask the patient, "When was your last tetanus shot?"

Tetanus' incubation runs from 3 days to 3 weeks, with 8 days being a typical time frame before symptoms are evident. The acute need for immediate tetanus vaccination is being addressed as quickly as possible by the arriving medical aid personnel in Haiti's overwhelming scenario.

About the Author:
Jen is the editor-in-chief for a popular online retailer of Latex Gloves and Supplies. and is building a web-based library for supporting caregivers grappling with adult incontinence. Readers are invited to this online resource, Latex and Latex Free Gloves.

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