For more than 30 years in Oregon, cases of tetanus in children were almost mythical — studied in textbooks but never seen in person — thanks to the effectiveness of pediatric vaccination programs.
That streak ended in 2017 when an unvaccinated 6-year-old boy arrived at a hospital in the state, experiencing jaw spasms and struggling to breathe, according to a new case study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The child was playing on a farm when he cut his head on something, the report said. His parents cleaned and stitched the wound at home, but alarming symptoms emerged six days later. The boy’s jaw began clenching, and his neck and back were arched — a trademark indication of tetanus called opisthotonus that is caused by involuntary muscle spasms.
He was airlifted to a pediatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with tetanus. It was the first instance of the life-threatening neuromuscular disease in a child in Oregon in more than three decades.
“Fortunately, the emergency department physicians immediately recognized the symptoms of severe tetanus,” Judith Guzman-Cottrill, an author of the report and a pediatrics professor at Oregon Health & Science University, told The Washington Post in an email. “Physicians have all read about tetanus, and we have seen pictures of people suffering from tetanus. … It is profound.”