Tetanus- The Real Story

Tetanus is one of those curious diseases that doctors and news media outlets bring up as a reason to vaccinate. It is a frightening disease. It takes hold in the nervous system causing painful muscle spasms and interferes with breathing, even to the point of death. Many think people think of tetanus as something that is very easy to contract. This combined with the excruciating nature of death from tetanus, is probably why this disease has had such a lurid and sensationalistic appeal. But what is the real likelihood of contracting tetanus and is vaccination the only way to prevent it?

The first thing to understand with tetanus is what conditions have to be present to develop the disease. Most Americans have heard that you can get tetanus from stepping on a rusty nail. This has led to the assumption that any sort of injury, large or small, from a metal object can cause tetanus. It’s not the metal that causes the infection and not every cut, nick or scrape is at risk for tetanus infection.

Tetanus is caused by infection with the bacteria clostridium tetani. This bacteria is found in soil, dust and animal feces all around the world. If the bacteria gets inside a deep wound, it can start producing a toxin called tetanospasmin, which causes the characteristic spasms associated with tetanus. Typically, a puncture (like stepping on a rusty nail) is necessary to produce the sort of deep wound necessary for tetanus to take hold.

(As a side note, we should all be asking why two month old infants are vaccinated against tetanus when they are probably the most unlikely to experience a deep puncture wound as they are unable to even crawl.)

The second condition that must present is that the wound must not be sufficiently cleaned. Keep this in mind, because a wound that is sufficiently cleaned to prevent infection will keep away many illnesses. There are many types of infections that can develop from wounds, including surgical wounds received in hospitals. For most other types wound infections, precautions such as hygiene are considered the first line of defense, yet with tetanus we embrace the idea of getting a shot and neglect to discuss the solution of simply cleaning a wound and/or using sterile implements.

In some other countries research is bringing to light some interesting alternatives in killing tetanus. Researchers in India found that cumin essential oil can inhibit the growth of c. tetanii. In Nigeria, researchers found that capsaicin, a compound found in hot chili peppers, can inhibit the growth of tetanus bacteria.

What about the excipients in tetanus shots? According to the CDC’s list of excipients, all vaccines for tetanus contain formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is known to put people at an increased risk for leukemia. Glutaraldehyde (a chemical compound which is closely related formaldehyde) is in all shots for tetanus except the Td and DT vaccines. Glutaraldehyde has been shown to cause increased rates of leukemia when placed in the drinking water of rats. Many tetanus vaccines include polysorbate 80 in their excipients which is known to cause severe allergic reactions and is used as a drug to treat anemia by causing the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells.

Heightened levels of red blood cells is medically referred to as polycythaemia. Some individuals with polycythemia may experience symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, red patches of skin on the hands, face and feet, tiredness, dizziness, high blood pressure, abdominal discomfort, periods of confusion, nosebleeds and bruising, gout and itchy skin after contact with water. No research seems to be available on whether polycythemia could occur in individuals with normal red blood cell counts who are then injected with polysorbate 80, though it certainly bears consideration. In fact, some of the symptoms associated with polycythemia are similar to side effects associated with vaccination, such as tiredness and dizziness.  Many tetanus shots contain ammonium sulfate. Often used as a fertilizer, this chemical is also a possible mutagen and can potentially cause damage to the nervous system producing symptoms such as excessive sleepiness, tremors, convulsions, muscle contraction and spasticity. It has also been associated with damage to the kidneys and bowels. Vegans and vegetarians should be aware that most tetanus shots contain bacteria strains grown in animal tissues.

When you take into account that tetanus is not a disease that can happen at every little cut and scrape that wound cleansing could potentially take care of the problem anyway, mass vaccination with carcinogens starts to look  like overkill.

Update: Of interest are cases of tetanus caused by vaccine or antitoxin. Enthusiasm over vaccines and antitoxins sometimes led to manufacturers rushing a product out without proper oversight. In 1901, several children died from tetanus contracted from contaminated diphtheria antitoxin and more people developed tetanus from contaminated smallpox vaccines. These incidents led to the passage of the Biologics Control Act of 1902.

Vaccination, Prejudice and the Wisdom of the Crowd

It’s human nature to follow popular opinion. We want to belong, we want to be part of something. Sometimes it can mean that a certain belief or practice is a good thing to do. Of course, our tendency to follow the crowd can develop into prejudice, fear and hatred- all of which can lead to violence that becomes socially sanctioned. We don’t need to look far into history find examples of this- the Ku Klux Klan in the American South, the Nanking Massacre during World War II, and the Holocaust are all examples where the blessing and encouragement of the crowd fueled by fear or feelings of superiority led people to to commit atrocities that darken the history of humanity. We face a similar dynamic today with vaccination.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the comments circulating on the internet. People who don’t vaccinate their children or follow alternative schedules should have their children taken away, be moved to an island where they can all die from vaccine preventable diseases together, etc. One time a good friend of mine shared a blog post on Facebook about how parents have been deceived by Andrew Wakefield. One of her friends commented that people who don’t vaccinate their children are worse than bio-terrorists. How charitable. Of course most people consider these comments hurtful but perfectly acceptable because vaccination is so crucial to human survival that people who choose not vaccinate or do not vaccinate according to the established schedules are a supreme threat and any means necessary is acceptable to make them conform to accepted norms.

Some unkind words are exchanged, but is that all? Prejudice against minority groups often starts with these sorts of justifications. In the American south, it was said that black teenagers would corrupt the moral purity of white teenagers so the racial integration of high schools should be fought by any means necessary. During World War II, American citizens of Japanese descent were said to be a security threat to the entire nation and were thus confined to internment camps. Under Communist regimes in Europe and Asia, people were sent to prison camps for being too educated or saying negative things about government officials. This was said to be necessary for the greater good of the country because such people would undermine the beneficent iron hand of totalitarianism.

In fact the medical and public health communities have encouraged a dangerous attitude that meets most of the criteria for a failure of crowd intelligence:

  • Homeogenity- James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, cites a lack of diversity of opinions as a crucial factor in whether a crowd acts responsibly or irrationally. The CDC, AMA, and APA have all been vocally critical of any views of vaccination that diverge in any way from the ones they have set forth. Even doctors like Robert Sears who are very pro-vaccination but advocate for a different schedule of vaccination have been labelled as dangerous. Research that shows risks for vaccination is discredited while research that shows vaccination as being safe and beneficial is accepted regardless of conflicts of interest or errors in data analysis.
  • Centralization- Surowiecki points out the need for information to come from multiple sources and not just one or a few entities. Right now the only information about vaccination that is considered accurate comes from public health and medical organizations who advocate for the current vaccination schedules. Input from health professionals who believe vaccination could be harmful or that certain shots are not necessary is considered irrelevant and dangerous and discredited. This means that most of the information that parents receive comes not from several independent resources that have all found the same thing, but rather a close-knit group of organizations who have ties to the pharmaceutical manufacturers who make the vaccines.
  • Imitation- He also warns of the dangers of “information cascades” where people do as others have done before despite any contradictions or personal information they have that indicates that the way of the crowd may not best. When this sort of copying is rewarded and encouraged, many individuals abandon reason and rational judgement to do as others do. This is frequently seen amongst parents whose child had serious reaction to a vaccine, like a seizure or period of prolonged screaming and then go and vaccinate again. A woman I know vaccinated her daughter at two months and the little girl screamed for several hours afterwards. She went ahead with the vaccination schedule and had her daughter vaccinated again at four months. Following that round of shots, the baby had a febrile seizure and vomiting and had to be rushed to the emergency room. Even after that, she continued to vaccinate her daughter according to schedule. This phenomenon can also be seen with physicians and researchers who acknowledge the deficiencies and dangers of vaccination, but continue to insist that the practice is crucial to preserving health. (For one example, refer back to the measles post for a link to the research paper which stated that measles encephalitis is on the decline amongst unvaccinated individuals and on the rise amongst vaccinated individuals, but still maintains the measles vaccine is necessary and safe.) Imitation and conformity are also why you usually won’t hear doctors departing from any vaccination protocols set forth by medical and public health entities. They simply assume that because they heard it in medical school it must be true. (Where would the practice of medicine be today if no one ever questioned what they learned in medical school?)
  • Emotionality- Emotional factors such as fear and the desire to belong can lead to peer pressure, the herd mentality and collective hysteria. Vaccination is an extremely emotionally charged subject. Few people are really able to step back and take a look at evidence concerning vaccination because of the fear associated with disease and the lack of acceptance associated with individuals who choose not to vaccinate. Discussions about potential problems of vaccination often devolve very quickly into the sorts of name calling mentioned in the introduction to this post.  Even information from the CDC often contains exaggerations about the potential threat of diseases and the efficacy of the shots. Of course the irony is that most people think that because they are taking a pro-vaccination stance they are being scientific, regardless of how emotional they get in discussing the subject.

The reality is that many people are willing to suspend choice and the free flow of information in the name of disease prevention. But if we are so quick to shut out opposing information because of fear, we are following deception. Science has never been founded on conformity, but rather on examination of divergent views. Embrace it!