Tetanus

Key disease facts

Tetanus is a vaccine-preventable, infectious disease. It is always serious and often fatal.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include lockjaw, rigidity of neck muscles, painful muscle spasms, difficulty in breathing. The death rate depends on the availability of intensive care — in the UK it is around 30% but an even higher proportion will die in developing countries.

How is it passed on?

Tetanus is not passed from person to person. It is caused by a type of bacteria which is extremely widespread in the environment, including in soil. The bacteria enter the body through open cuts and burns, including scratches which may go unnoticed.

What protection is available?

The only way to get protection against tetanus is vaccination. Because the infection comes from the environment, rather than being passed from person to person, there is no ‘herd immunity’ for tetanus—every person needs to be individually protected. In the UK, babies are given protection by the 5-in-1 vaccine. Follow-up doses are given in the Pre-school Booster and the Teenage Booster vaccines.

It is not possible to develop natural immunity to tetanus—even those who survive the disease are not immune to future infection. For more info see Patrick Guilfoile, Tetanus (New York: Chelsea House, 2008), p. 62.

More information about the disease

In the early twentieth century, around 200 people in the UK died of tetanus each year. The vaccination was introduced nationally in 1961, and by the 1970s tetanus was hardly seen in children in the UK. The UK now sees only a handful of cases each year, mainly unvaccinated older adults, and often linked with use of contaminated injected drugs.

Page last updated: 
Monday, December 15, 2014