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Doctors warn gardeners to protect against tetanus

By JR Ortega
April 21, 2010 at 6:02 p.m.
Updated April 20, 2010 at 11:21 p.m.

Nancy Kramer picks up rocks from freshly tilled soil at the Victoria Educational Garden. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults get a tetanus booster every 10 years. The bacteria that causes tetanus is found in animal waste, dust and soil.

Tetanus symptoms

Signs and symptoms of tetanus may appear anytime from a few days to several weeks after tetanus bacteria enter your body through a wound. The incubation period for the disease is usually between three days and three weeks, with an average of eight days.

Signs and symptoms of tetanus may include:

Spasms of your jaw, neck and other muscles. As the toxin spreads to nerves, your face and jaw muscles may be affected by strong spasms. Spasms can also affect muscles in your chest, abdomen and back.

Stiffness of your jaw, neck and other muscles. This is why tetanus is commonly referred to as lockjaw. Spasms and stiffness of your jaw and neck may lead to difficulty swallowing. Stiffness can also affect your chest, abdominal and back muscles.

Difficulty breathing. Severe spasms can affect respiratory muscles and make it difficult to breathe.

Other signs and symptoms can include:

Fever

Muscular irritability

Source: Mayo Clinic

Nancy Kramer enjoys the garden.

Kramer has been a member of the Master Gardeners in Victoria since 2002 and has suffered her share of cuts and scrapes.

With spring in full swing and gardening at its peak, keeping up-to-date with a tetanus shot is more important than ever, Kramer said.

"It's very important when working around the sharp tools that they trim the plants with," she said.

Tetanus is an infection of the nervous system that kills a half-million people worldwide each year. Only 80 U.S. tetanus cases are reported in the United States, but gardeners are at greatest risk for infection, said Dr. Miguel Sierra-Hoffman.

Sierra-Hoffman, a regional infectious disease doctor, said Kramer takes the right approach when it comes to gardening.

"Traditionally, when you hear 'vaccinations,' the mental process is that vaccines are for kids," he said. "That is something that has to be changed."

People usually receive their last tetanus shot at 12 years old. After that, doctors suggest you receive a booster every 10 years, he said.

During World War I, tetanus was a devastating disease that killed about 60 million people a year worldwide, Sierra-Hoffman said.

Working with the soil and sharp tools - such as those used by gardeners - can be dangerous, too, he said. The bacteria that causes tetanus lives in soil, dust and animal waste.

Kramer has seen other gardeners with deep arm scratches and has even pierced her forearm with pruning shears.

Tetanus symptoms usually show first in the mouth. The mouth muscles contract and often cause lockjaw, Sierra-Hoffman said.

After that, the body becomes epileptic. The body contracts and convulses so violently that bones break.

"It's a very painful way of dying," he said. "The consequences of the infection are dramatic."

Sierra-Hoffman has only treated one case in the United States. In his homeland of Honduras, hospitals often treat two or three tetanus cases because of the lack of good health care, he said.

"It's very rare in this country that a kid doesn't get immunized," Sierra Hoffman said, referring to the United States. "There are so many ways to control it. If they don't have immunizations, they can't go to school."

Of the 80 U.S. cases, many are older than 60, he said.

"Immunity wanes with age," Sierra-Hoffman said. "There are vaccines for adults."

Kramer helped another master gardener use the tiller to cultivate the ground.

She finds it hard to believe people would not stay safe when working in the garden, she said.

"I imagined that most people would," she said. "It's pretty important."

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