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.