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Management and prevention of tetanus.

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Plastic Surgical Research Program, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.


The World Health Organization was committed to eliminating neonatal tetanus by 1995. Three years after this date, the infection killed over 400,000 babies a year, even though a safe, effective vaccine had been available for most of this century. The frequency of tetanus in the developing world epitomizes the healthcare disparity between the developed and the developing world. Consequently, the priority of the medical profession must be prevention, with the development of simpler immunization schedules with longer protection. Consequently, the purpose of this collective review is to provide an overview to the management of tetanus as well as to review the immunization strategy that will prevent this potentially deadly illness. Tetanus is caused by Cloistridium tetani, which is an obligate anaerobic, gram-positive rod that is motile and readily forms endospores. Although C. tetani is located everywhere, the disease is encountered largely in underdeveloped, overcrowded, and economically disadvantaged countries. C. tetani is widespread in the feces of domestic animals and humans, while spores of C. tetani are abundant in soil and in the environment surrounding the habitation of humans and animals. Tetanus usually follows deep penetrating wounds where anaerobic bacterial growth is facilitated. Three basic forms of tetanus may be distinguished: local, cephalic, and generalized. At least 80% of the cases are the generalized form. In the adult patient, the most characteristic sign of generalized tetanus is lockjaw, or trismus. The diagnosis of tetanus is most frequently made on clinical manifestations, rather than on bacteriologic findings. The three objectives of management of tetanus are: (1) to provide supportive care until the tetanospasmin that is fixed in tissue has been metabolized; (2) to neutralize circulating toxin; and (3) to remove the source of tetanospasmin. Because there is essentially no immunity to tetanus toxoid, the only effective way to control tetanus is by prophylactic immunization.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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