Health myth fuels demand for tetanus shots after Harvey: 6 things to know

Numerous media anchors, elected officials and public health officials have encouraged Hurricane Harvey survivors to get a tetanus shot. Experts believe these appeals are spurred by the myth that exposure to floodwater can increase an individual's risk of contracting tetanus, according to STAT.

Here are six things to know.

1. While floodwater can carry multiple contaminants from sewage to industrial chemicals, floodwater exposure alone does not increase a person's risk of catching tetanus.

"It's this old wives' tale. It's a myth," Michael Osterholm, PhD, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research in Minneapolis, told STAT.

2. The myth is likely spurred by the fact that being in floodwaters does increase one's risk of puncture wounds, as these waters can carry debris. Individuals working on flood cleanups also have increased risk of experience a puncture wound, which serves as an entryway for tetanus to enter the body.

3. Tetanus is caused by the spore-forming bacteria Clostridium tetani, which can be found in soil, dust and manure. When the spores enter the body, which can often occur after a puncture wound, the bacteria produce toxins that can cause multiple health complications, including painful muscle contractions in the jaw, headache and pneumonia. While 10 percent to 20 percent of cases are fatal, the condition is rare. The U.S. sees about 30 cases annually, according to STAT.

4. While the CDC does not recommend tetanus shots for those who have been exposed to floodwaters, the agency does recommend individuals participating in flood cleanups be up to date on their tetanus vaccinations.

5. Dr. Osterholm expressed concern that widespread tetanus vaccination efforts would cause a superfluous diversion of resources and incite undue alarm. Dr. Osterholm added that increases in tetanus cases haven't occurred after past natural disasters when there wasn't a widespread effort to vaccinate.

"As we looked at this more closely, in fact, even though punctures surely can occur, there's absolutely no evidence that people are at more risk," Dr. Osterholm told STAT.

6. Kathleen Schrank, MD, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Miami, told the publication people do get panicky regarding the risk of tetanus after a natural disaster, though the fear is generally unwarranted.

"So they go seek care for it and that overwhelms the local clinic or urgent care centers or health departments at a time when they need to be focused on much more likely threats," Dr. Schrank told STAT. "If you do develop a wound in your skin that develops an infection, yes, by all means go get medical care for it … I don't want to see people ignore [real] things. But the tetanus need is going to be minimal."

More articles on infection control: 
Study: Antimicrobial nursing scrubs ineffective at limiting bacterial contamination 
37 sickened in multistate Salmonella outbreak linked to pet turtles 
APIC: 6 tips for infection prevention after a hurricane

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