A 6-year-old boy who never got his childhood vaccinations spent nearly two months in a hospital and nearly died after contracting tetanus from a cut on his forehead, racking up more than $800,000 in medical expenses.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details the exhausting and expensive fight the family had with a highly-preventable disease.
Tetanus is a bacterial infection usually transmitted by soil: think not wearing gloves while gardening and cutting your finger on a thorn or scraping your knee at the park. The bacteria then releases toxins that cause painful spasms and cause a person to lose control of their body, according to the CDC, and lead to broken bones, pneumonia, and difficulty breathing. About 10% of cases are fatal.
"This case report reminds us that tetanus is severe and life-threatening illness," Dr. Judith Guzman-Cottrill, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist who co-authored the report and cared for the boy, told BuzzFeed News. "It was hard to see him suffer. Vaccinations can prevent these terrible diseases."
Last year, the 6-year-old boy was playing on his family’s farm in Oregon when he scraped his forehead. His family cleaned and sutured the wound, but six days later, his jaw started to clench and lock, and his arms and upper body spasmed uncontrollably. His whole body then began to experience seizures and he started arching his neck and back. Later that day, he struggled to breathe, the CDC said.
The boy's parents called for help and an emergency helicopter took him to a pediatric medical center. He craved water, but couldn’t drink it because he couldn’t open his mouth. Still barely able to breathe, physicians had to stick a tube down his windpipe.
Doctors diagnosed him with a tetanus infection, the first case seen in Oregon in about 30 years, and gave him several rounds of vaccines and a large dose of tetanus immune globulin, a common immunization that helps the body defend itself against diseases.
The boy, who was not identified, spent the next 47 days in intensive care, mostly in a dark room with ear plugs to minimize any stimulation, which intensified his spasms. He also remained hooked up to a breathing machine and was constantly medicated through an IV to help calm his muscles, pain, and blood pressure.
Still, according to the CDC, the boy continued to get worse. Five days later, doctors cut a hole in his neck and inserted a tube to help him breathe.
On the 44th day, he was finally able to sip some clear liquids and, two days later, he left the intensive care unit. After 50 days in the hospital, he was able to walk 20 feet, but still needed to spend 17 more days in a rehabilitation facility to regain the ability to move his legs and body, the CDC said.
When it was all said and done, the family had racked up a bill of $811,929 — nearly 72 times what it usually costs for an average child, the authors reported. His parents also have to pay for the emergency helicopter transport, rehabilitation, and follow-up visits.
One dose of DTaP, the tetanus vaccine, ranges from $24 to $30. Guzman-Cottrill said that about five rounds of the medication could have prevented his infection.
But even after the near-death experience, the family declined the second dose of the vaccine needed to be immunized against tetanus and other recommended immunizations, the CDC reported.
William Schaffner, a vaccine and infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told BuzzFeed News that the boy's painful ordeal was "enormously problematic" because he contracted "a disease that we had eliminated virtually in the US."
"It's not by accident but intent that Oregon hasn't seen a case in 30 years and basically every other state could make that statement," he said. "It's a fierce illness. That's why this case is so enormously problematic."
And while the boy not receiving any vaccinations prior to the infection was "troubling," it was the parents' decision to again refuse to vaccinate the child that was hard to comprehend, Schaffner said.
As the boy was recovering, Guzman-Cottrill said she gave his parents educational materials explaining the benefits of all immunizations, but they still refused.
"He could get this again," Schaffner said. "Even though you had a case of tetanus you remain susceptible, so they could go through this whole experience again."
Nationwide, there’s been a 95% drop in tetanus infections over the past 80 years since child vaccinations and adult booster shots became more common, the CDC said. However, between 2009 and 2015, 16 people in the US have died from tetanus and doctors have recorded 197 infections.
The CDC report comes as the US is grappling with a growing anti-vaccination movement bolstered by the spread of misleading content social media platforms. Major tech companies like YouTube and Amazon have recently pulled and banned anti-vaxx ads and videos from their sites.
The US is also in the throes of one of the worst measles outbreaks since 1992. In Washington and Oregon, the preventable disease has sickened more than 75 people, many of them children, prompting a visit from the US surgeon general. In Clark County, Washington, parents had to keep more than 800 kids home from school because of exposure to the disease.
"There are many scary diseases of yesteryear, as we say, that could come out of the woodwork," Schaffner said. "The Oregon case is a terribly painful but absolutely vivid lesson and I hope that parents listen to this story."