An unvaccinated 6-year-old boy from Oregon is the first child to be diagnosed with tetanus in the state for more than 30 years. The incident took place in 2017, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports, when he fell and cut his forehead while playing outside at a farm.
The wound was cleaned but six days later, he experienced jaw clenching, involuntary upper extremity muscle spasms, arching of the neck and back (opisthotonus), and spasticity. Then, he started to have trouble breathing. At which point, his parents called the emergency services, who airlifted him to a pediatric medical center where he received a diagnosis of tetanus. He ended up sedated, intubated and on a ventilator to help him breathe.
Tetanus is an acute neuromuscular disease that if untreated, can be life-threatening. It is caused by the Clostridium tetani bacterium and while it is often associated with rusted nails, it can be found anywhere and everywhere in the environment from soil to dust to feces.
Fortunately, the development and distribution of tetanus toxoid-containing vaccines has resulted in a 95 percent decline in the number of cases (and a 99 percent decline in the number of tetanus-related deaths) since the 1940s. This has meant that there were just 197 tetanus cases and 16 tetanus-related deaths in the US between 2009 and 2015.
However, the ascent of the anti-vaxx movement in recent years is putting more people like this at risk of easily preventable diseases like tetanus – not only the children of anti-vaxxer parents but those who are unable to be immunized because of legitimate medical reasons.
The Oregan boy had received no vaccinations at the time of the incident. Worryingly, the number of unvaccinated children seems to be rising, quadrupling in just the last 17 years alone. As a result, we’re now seeing repeated measles outbreaks in both the US and Europe. Indeed, even the World Health Organization (WHO) deems it dangerous enough to add anti-vaxxers to the list of biggest threats to world health next to climate change and antibacterial resistance.
Social media has been named and blamed as one of the key distributors of false information around vaccines – for example, the myth that vaccines cause autism, linked to the now-disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield.
(For the record, Wakefield was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council and was named the winner of the 2018 “Rusty Razor” award for pseudoscience and bad critical thinking. More importantly, however, his “research” relating the MMR vaccine to autism has since been thoroughly debunked – multiple times.)
This link between social media and anti-vaccine sentiment was brought to national attention last week when a teenager stood up before Congress to tell legislators he got vaccinated without his anti-vaxx mom’s permission as she received most of her information from Facebook.
Possibly in response, the social media giant released a statement promising to tackle the spread of anti-vaccine hoaxes. Spokespeople from Facebook have promised to reject ads that include misinformation, to stop recommending groups and pages that spread misinformation and reduce the ranking of these groups and pages.
“If these vaccine hoaxes appear on Facebook, we will take action against them,” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy, said.
Other social media companies are also taking action: YouTube, for example, has said it will no longer let users’ monetize anti-vaccine videos with ads and Pinterest has barred searches relating to vaccines. How effective this action is, waits to be seen.
As for the boy from Oregon, he required almost two months’ worth of inpatient care, plus rehabilitation, worth more than $800,000. Fortunately, he is now fully recovered, but people who recover from tetanus do not have natural immunity and so still need to be vaccinated. His family has still declined to do so.