05/30/2015 04:13 EDT | Updated 05/30/2016 05:59 EDT

This Six-Year-Old With a Vaccine-Preventable Illness Is Fighting For His Life

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Today there is a six-year-old boy lying in a London, Ontario hospital fighting for his life. He is in critical condition with a vaccine-preventable illness, tetanus. Most North American's have never known a person who has suffered from this life threatening disease, and it isn't on most people's radars. Rare, yes. But REAL.

Across Canada, there is an average of three cases reported per year according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. It is preventable with the simple vaccines we give in childhood, and repeat every 10 years in adulthood. This vaccine is one of the most benign of the vaccine series, with minimal side effects, typically limited to mild pain and low-grade fever.

Unfortunately, with increasing public concern over vaccine safety (despite numerous studies demonstrating their safety and efficacy), we have seen a resurgence of illnesses such as tetanus. Measles and pertussis (whooping cough) scares have speckled Canadian and American population of late, and will likely continue.

In this case, the young boy suffered a puncture wound to his foot a week prior to the onset of tetanus symptoms. He was not vaccinated.

Tetanus is a disease caused by a toxin (or poison) that blocks normal control of nerve reflexes in the spinal column. The first symptom is usually spasm of the jaw muscles ("lockjaw"). Next there are painful spasms of muscles in the face, neck, chest, abdomen, arms and legs. These spasms can last up to a month, even with treatment.

Tetanus exists as bacteria and spores. Spores are found most often in soil, as well as in dust on the street and in homes. Tetanus usually enters the body through an open skin wound, hence the fear of stepping on a rusty nail. Tetanus is not contagious, making it unique among infections. It is a severe disease; even with treatment, the death rate is 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

On a medical mission to Cambodia during my pediatric residency, I took care of a young boy with tetanus. I have never seen someone in so much pain. He was ravaged with uncontrollable, painful spasms throughout his frail body. Despite appropriate treatment, he was doomed to wait the illness through. He was in so much pain -- it literally makes me cry just thinking about it. I have never seen such discomfort, fear and sadness. He wanted to die to make it stop.

Vaccination is the only effective means of protection, as tetanus spores occur everywhere in our environment. The vaccine series in infancy and early childhood, and booster doses every 10 years are recommended to ensure long-term protection against tetanus.

Please, talk to your doctor about vaccinations. Vaccines are not nearly as scary as the illnesses they prevent.


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