Many health concerns have been raised following the devastating floods that hurricane Harvey brought to Texas. Civilians and first responders have been wading through debris ridden flood waters which increases the possibility of disaster related injuries. There are high levels of bacteria in the flood water, and this increases the risk of wounds exposed to these waters becoming infected. Because of these conditions, questions have been raised about increased risk of contracting tetanus from wounds sustained in flood waters. According to CDC press officer Kristen Nordlund, “exposure to flood waters does not increase the risk of tetanus.” Michael Osterholm, PhD, PMH states that the idea that flooding and floating sharp objects in the flood waters increases the risk of tetanus is an old wives’ tale.
Tetanus, commonly known as lockjaw, is a serious bacterial infection that affects the nervous system leading to painful muscle contractions, particularly of the jaw and neck muscles. Spores of tetanus bacteria are found throughout the environment in soil, manure, and dust. The spores turn into bacteria once they enter the body. The spores enter the body through broken skin, usually from injuries caused by contaminated objects. Wounds contaminated with feces and dirt as well as wounds caused by punctures of the skin are more likely to become infected with tetanus. Burns, crush injuries, and wounds with dead tissue are also more likely to become infected with tetanus.
The incubation period for tetanus is usually between 3 to 21 days, with the average being 10 days. Although it can range from one day to several months, most cases occur within 14 days. Shorter incubation periods are associated with more heavily contaminated wounds, more severe disease and worse prognosis.
Tetanus can affect your ability to breath and be life threatening. There is no cure for tetanus, but a vaccine is available. The current recommendation for adults is a tetanus booster every 10 years. For children, the CDC recommends a series of four shots to be given between 2 and 18 months, a booster shot at 4-6 years of age and another by 12.
Although the risk of contracting tetanus in flood waters may not be increased, any wounds sustained during disaster cleanup should be taken seriously. If you experience a wound injury and you are unsure of your tetanus vaccination status, you should get vaccinated according to Tom Skinner a spokesman for the CDC. The best tool to prevent tetanus is being up to date with your tetanus vaccine.
The TDSHS recently drafted guidance for immunization recommendations in a natural disaster. The major concern is for anyone exposed to unsanitary conditions be up to date with their tetanus vaccination. If an individual gets a puncture wound or a wound contaminated with feces, saliva, or soil a doctor or health department should determine whether a tetanus booster is necessary based on individual health records. For more information regarding vaccination go to www.cdc.gov/vaccination.