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Flood Waters, Tetanus, and Politicians


Congressman urges Hurricane Harvey victims to get a tetanus shot. Medical myth or mandatory?

I’m guessing we’re all familiar with the wide range of medical myths out there, for example: don’t swim within an hour of eating, getting chilled will give you a cold, etc. Another that has floated around for decades and has just been pushed to the surface is that persons in flooded areas are at higher risk of contracting tetanus and should get a tetanus shot.

T or F: persons in flooded areas are at higher risk of contracting tetanus and should get a tetanus shot.

A professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Miami, Dr. Kathleen Schrank, remembers when Hurricane Andrew smashed into southern Florida 25 years ago and the demand for tetanus shots “swamped the healthcare system.” More recently, during an interview with CNN after Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, a Texas Congressman mentioned the importance of inoculation against tetanus in flooded areas. Is this a medical myth? Does flooding increase your risk of getting tetanus if your vaccine status has lapsed? 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"63089","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_4837079325871","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"8038","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"height: 292px; width: 300px; float: right;","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]Walking around in “dirty” water and not being able to see your feet might increase one’s risk of cuts to the lower extremities since you can’t see what’s under the top of the water. Tetanus spores tend to be found in the feces and intestines of many mammals including domesticated horses and sheep, so it is easy to imagine those spores floating around in the water.

So, what is the CDC’s official position on flooded areas and tetanus immunization campaigns?

A. Yes, an immunization campaign should be undertaken to ensure that those with lapsed vaccine status get immunized due to the increased risk with exposure to dirty flood waters.

B. No, this would be a waste of resources in a time of other needs since there is no evidence of the presence of increased risk.

Please click here for answer and discussion.

The correct answer is B. Exposure to flood water does not increase risk of contracting tetanus.     

If a person’s vaccine status is up to date, ie, a tetanus booster has been received within the last ten years, there is no need for a shot of Td or Tdap. If it has been more than ten years, one should get a booster whether or not the neighborhood has been flooded.

It’s bad enough that politicians are the ones who end up deciding how medical care gets financed. Let’s hope they can defer to the professionals when it comes to offering medical advice. We are already “swamped” with enough medical myths “floating” around--we hardly need another under the present circumstances.



Beavers O. GOP rep warns Texas residents: Start thinking about tetanus shots.The Hill. August 28, 2017.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worker safety after a flood.  (CDC’s statement on floodwater exposure and risk of tetanus)

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