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Unvaccinated Boy Almost Dies From First Case of Tetanus in Oregon in Over 30 Years

2017-04-05, Belarus, Grodno, Regional cardiac hospital. Emergency patient in critical state with intraaortic balloon pump and extracorporeal circuit hemodialysis assist. Editorial content.
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

According to a report published Friday by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an unvaccinated 6-year-old boy was playing on his family's farm in Oregon in 2017 when he cut his arm. He was patched up at home and initially seemed fine, but a few days later, he started experiencing lots of pain, involuntary muscle spasms and trouble breathing. His parents took him to the hospital and medical staff discovered he had tetanus — the state's first pediatric case in over 30 years.

Critical care pediatrician Dr. Carl Eriksson of the Oregon Health and Science University and the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital tells NBC News that when the boy arrived at the hospital, his condition was critical.

"He required mechanical ventilation (a respirator) through a breathing tube in his mouth, and multiple medications to control severe muscle spasms, pain and agitation," and was immediately put into a darkened ICU room with ear plugs in as any stimulation was worsening his muscle pains.

The report states that the boy was given an emergency dose of the DTaP vaccine (the one that prevents tetanus) as part of his treatment, but that despite "extensive review of the risks and benefits of tetanus vaccination by physicians, the family declined the second dose of DTaP and any other recommended immunizations."

Oregon has one of the highest rates of unvaccinated children in the United States — approximately 7.5 percent of its young residents are not vaccinated.

Dr. Judith A. Guzman-Cottrill, one of the doctors who treated the boy and the lead author of the article, confessed at a press conference, “I honestly never thought I would see this disease in the United States ... We had a hard time taking care of this child — watching him suffer — and it is a preventable disease."

Since the DTaP vaccine was introduced, there have been practically no cases of tetanus in the U.S. In fact, cases of tetanus have dropped 95 percent and deaths related to tetanus are down 99 percent.

DTaP is usually given at five different times throughout a child's life: at 2, 4 and 6 months, between 4 to 6 years of age and a booster shot every 10 years thereafter.

At the end of his harrowing experience, the boy had been in the hospital for 57 days and racked up a whopping $811,929 in medical bills — which, according to the paper, is 72 times the cost of the average pediatric hospital stay. The average cost for each vaccine dose? $30.

Fortunately, a month after he finally returned home, the boy was fine and able to get back to normal life.

The CDC decided to release this case study in light of recent concern over a growing measles outbreak in across the country, and as states such as Oregon and Washington get ready to vote on bills to end non-medical exemptions for routine childhood vaccines.

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