No parent wants to see their child ill. But thanks to the power of immunizations, many once-deadly diseases have all but disappeared in most of the world. Unfortunately, though, some parents choose not to make use of this effective science. And after learning that an unvaccinated boy contracted tetanus — which marked Oregon's first pediatric case in almost 30 years, according to The Oregonian — health officials are urging parents to protect their children from this dangerous — and entirely preventable — disease.
After contracting tetanus while playing on a farm in 2017, a 6-year-old boy from Oregon was hospitalized for eight weeks and his parents are looking at nearly $1 million in medical bills, according to The Oregonian. While in the hospital, the boy had to endure days spent in dark rooms, excruciating pain, and loss of bodily control, STAT News reported.
Despite all this, his parents still have yet to vaccinate him against the disease, according to STAT News, which, the CDC warned in a report released on Thursday, he could very well get again. That's because, unlike the measles or chicken pox, as noted by the CDC, contracting tetanus does not supply you with immunity.
The Oregonian reported that the tetanus vaccine reduced the number of tetanus cases by 95 percent since the 1940s. But that doesn't mean the bacteria that causes the disease is gone. It lives in the soil, ready to infect those who are unvaccinated, such as the boy in Oregon. And the effects of the disease can be incredibly painful.
During his stay at the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, the boy experienced lockjaw that prevented him from drinking water despite his extreme thirst, involuntary body spasms, and difficulty breathing, according to The Hill. He had to remain in a dark room without stimuli such as noise or light, in order to reduce the spasms, and was hooked up to IVs and feeding tubes. It took almost two months for him to recover the ability to run and play, according to NBC News affiliate KGW8.
Along with memories of his pain and suffering, the parents also left with $811,929, The Oregonian reported — and that doesn't even include the cost the necessary air transportation to the hospital from the farm, his time at the rehabilitation center, or any follow-up costs. According to the CDC report, his costs are on the high end of the spectrum for tetanus treatment cases, which can range from $22,000 to more than $1 million.
The vaccine that prevents tetanus is within children's regularly scheduled shot rotation. It comes in the form of the DTaP vaccine — that is the diptheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine — that babies receive at ages 2, 4, and 6 months, followed by a dose between 15 and 18 months, and finally a fifth dose between 4 and 6 years old, according to the CDC. From there, the CDC recommends that children and adults receive DTaP boosters every 10 years for the rest of their lives, and again during pregnancy.
The most recent case of tetanus follows news of measles outbreaks in Washington and Oregon that have infected a total of 75 people thus far, according to NPR, and the majority of those who contracted the disease were unvaccinated children. The rise and reemergence of preventable diseases in the U.S. has prompted health officials across the country to speak out about the importance of vaccinating children.
Dr. Lindy Samson, Chief of Infectious Diseases at CHEO explained that diseases like tetanus "will never go away completely as the bacteria that causes it is always present in the environment." And despite the availability of vaccines, parents are still opting out of this effective form of protection. When children remain unvaccinated, they are put at unnecessary risk.
"Unfortunately each of these infections can result in either life threatening complications or long-term disabilities ... Your child cannot develop immunity to something he has never been exposed to," Samson explained, according to CHEO. "While your child can develop immunity if exposed to a certain disease, before developing the immunity they will likely actually get sick from the infection and have to endure the possible life-threatening complications that may occur."
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University who was not involved with the case, described the boy's infection to LiveScience as "a tragic event that [was] completely preventable." And the fact that his parents chose not to vaccinate after that amounted to a "second tragedy," he said.
The parents have not spoken with the media about their decision not to vaccinate. And the reasons why parents choose not to vary, but one thing is clear: leaving children unvaccinated can have costly and devastating consequences.