Obstetric Tetanus Is Still a Thing in the United States

Yes, even though we have had a tetanus vaccine for over 80 years, obstetric tetanus is still a thing in the United States.

Obstetric Tetanus in Kentucky

According to a report from the CDC, in July 2016, an unvaccinated Amish woman in Kentucky developed “facial numbness and neck pain, which progressed over 24 hours to stiff neck and jaw and difficulty swallowing and breathing” about nine days after “she delivered a child at home, assisted by an unlicensed community childbirth assistant.”

She  was hospitalized for a month, during which time she had seizures and was on a mechanical ventilator to help her breath for a “prolonged” amount of time.

Fortunately, her baby didn’t also develop tetanus, even though the family refused a recommended dose of tetanus immunoglobulin that could prevent neonatal tetanus from developing.

Surprisingly, after this incident, only 12% of community members agreed to be vaccinated with a tetanus vaccine. One pregnant woman even refused to get vaccinated. This is even less than the response to the Ohio measles outbreak in 2014, when up to 28% of unvaccinated Amish members got vaccinated with an MMR vaccine.

Neonatal Tetanus

An 8-day old baby with neonatal tetanus born to an unvaccinated mother.
An 8-day old baby with neonatal tetanus born to an unvaccinated mother. (CC BY 3.0)

In addition to obstetric tetanus, getting tetanus during or right after a pregnancy, neonatal tetanus is a big concern for unvaccinated mothers. Just like if their mothers don’t get a flu or pertussis containing vaccine, without a tetanus vaccine, newborn babies don’t get any passive immunity and protection against tetanus.

In 2015, 34,019 newborns died from neonatal tetanus worldwide. Amazingly, that is down from 787,000 newborns in 1988 “through immunization of children, mothers, other women of reproductive age (WRA) and promotion of more hygienic deliveries and cord care practices.”

It is not all about hygiene though. Tetanus spores are everywhere. For example, in the Kentucky case, the CDC found no evidence of “birth trauma, unsterile conditions, or other complications.”

In Montana, the baby of an unvaccinated mother developed tetanus that was linked to a non-sterile clay that was given to them by a midwife for home umbilical cord care.

Fortunately, these kinds of cases are rare. There have probably been less than 40 cases of neonatal tetanus since the early 1970s, and only two since 1989, but they should still be a reminder of what could happen if we stop getting vaccinated.

Risky Umbilical Cord Practices

Adding to the risk of getting tetanus, the same moms who aren’t getting vaccinated and protected may be following unsafe umbilical cord care practices.

“…tetanus in neonates can result from umbilical cord colonization, particularly in countries with limited resources. This infection results from contamination of the umbilical separation site by Clostridium tetani acquired from a nonsterile device used to separate the umbilical cord during the peripartum period or from application of unhygienic substances to the cord stump.”

AAP – Umbilical Cord Care in the Newborn Infant – 2016

In countries that are still combating neonatal tetanus, we hear of mothers in rural areas  putting herbs, herbal pastes, chalk, powders, clay, oils, and even butter on their baby’s umbilical cord.

These natural substances are certainly not safer than more standard care, as they can be contaminated with something else that is natural – tetanus spores.

What natural things, and risky, things can you see recommended for umbilical cord care in developed countries? How about honey, goldenseal powder, Frankincense and myrrh oil, and Aztec Healing Clay?

You don’t feed honey to infants because of the risk of botulism spores, but you are supposed to put it directly on their umbilical stump?

Some midwifes even recommend ground rosemary or other dried herbs that you are actually supposed to sprinkle directly on your baby’s umbilical stump. The use of dried herbs is especially problematic. It is well known that these products are not sterile.

“Spore forming bacteria (B. cereus, C. perfringens) that are capable of causing foodborne disease when ingested in large numbers are frequently found in spices and herbs, but usually at low levels.”

Food Microbiology. Volume 26, Issue 1, February 2009, Pages 39–43

If dried herbs are also contaminated with tetanus spores (C. tetani), and you place them on an umbilical cord stump of a child whose mother wasn’t vaccinated against tetanus, then you unnecessarily increase the risk for neonatal tetanus.

Not that you would ever hear about this risk from anyone who pushes these practices or tells these moms to avoid getting vaccinated. What happened to informed consent?

And what happens as Andrew Wakefield‘s kids continue to grow up, move beyond getting measles, and begin to have kids? If they still aren’t vaccinated, they and their babies will be at risk for diseases that we thought we had gotten well controlled, like obstetric tetanus, neonatal tetanus, and congenital rubella syndrome.

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