Tetanus in an unvaccinated child

In 2017, a boy aged 6 years who had received no immunizations sustained a forehead laceration while playing outdoors on a farm; 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. Later that day, at the onset of breathing difficulty, the parents contacted emergency medical services, who air-transported him directly to a tertiary pediatric medical center. The boy subsequently received a diagnosis of tetanus and required approximately 8 weeks of inpatient care, followed by rehabilitation care, before he was able to resume normal activities.

Upon hospital arrival, the child had jaw muscle spasms (trismus). He was alert and requested water but was unable to open his mouth; respiratory distress caused by diaphragmatic and laryngeal spasm necessitated sedation, endotracheal intubation, and mechanical ventilation. Tetanus immune globulin (3,000 units) and diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP) were administered for presumed tetanus. He was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit and cared for in a darkened room with ear plugs and minimal stimulation (stimulation increased the intensity of his spasms). Intravenous metronidazole was initiated, and the scalp laceration was irrigated and debrided.

His opisthotonus worsened, and he developed autonomic instability (hypertension, tachycardia, and body temperatures of 97.0°F–104.9°F [36.1°C–40.5°C]). 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. A tracheostomy was placed on hospital day 5 for prolonged ventilator support. Starting on hospital day 35, the patient tolerated a 5-day wean from neuromuscular blockade. On day 44, his ventilator support was discontinued, and he tolerated sips of clear liquids. On day 47, he was transferred to the intermediate care unit. Three days later, he walked 20 feet with assistance. On day 54, his tracheostomy was removed, and 3 days later, he was transferred to a rehabilitation center for 17 days.

The boy required 57 days of inpatient acute care, including 47 days in the intensive care unit. The inpatient charges totaled $811,929 (excluding air transportation, inpatient rehabilitation, and ambulatory follow-up costs). One month after inpatient rehabilitation, he returned to all normal activities, including running and bicycling. Despite extensive review of the risks and benefits of tetanus vaccination by physicians, the family declined the second dose of DTaP and any other recommended immunizations.

What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is an acute neuromuscular disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. Bacterial spores found in soil can enter the body through skin disruption, with subsequent onset of clinical illness ranging from 3 to 21 days (usually within 8 days). 

Credits: Centers for disease control and prevention (CDC), Judith A. Guzman-Cottrill, Christina Lancioni, Carl Eriksson, Yoon-Jae Cho, Juventila Liko,

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