Tetanus is a non-communicable disease contracted through exposure to the spores of the bacterium, Clostridium tetani, that exists worldwide in soil and in animal intestinal tracts, and as such can contaminate many surfaces and substances. As a result of the ubiquity of the bacterium causing tetanus, the disease cannot be eradicated. Neurotoxins produced under anaerobic conditions in wounds contaminated with the bacterial spores lead to tetanus. Tetanus occurring during pregnancy or within 6 weeks of the end of pregnancy is called “maternal tetanus”, while tetanus occurring within the first 28 days of life is called “neonatal tetanus”.
People of all ages can get tetanus but the disease is particularly common and serious in newborn babies and their mothers when the mothers` are unprotected from tetanus by the vaccine, tetanus toxoid. Tetanus requires treatment in a medical facility, often in a referral hospital. Neonatal tetanus, which is mostly fatal, is particularly common in difficult to reach and rural areas where deliveries take place at home without adequate sterile procedures and in unclean environment. WHO estimated that neonatal tetanus killed about 49,000 newborn children in 2013, a 94% reduction from the situation in 1988 when an estimated 787,000 newborn babies died of tetanus within their first month of life.
Tetanus can be prevented through immunization with tetanus-toxoid-containing vaccines (TTCV). Neonatal tetanus can be prevented by immunizing women of reproductive age with TTCV, either during pregnancy or outside of pregnancy. This protects the mother and - through a transfer of tetanus antibodies to the fetus - also her baby. Additionally, clean practices when a mother is delivering a child are also important to prevent neonatal and maternal tetanus.
People who recover from tetanus do not have natural immunity and can be infected again and therefore need to be immunized. To be protected throughout life, WHO recommends that an individual receives 3 doses of DTP in infancy, followed by TTCV boosters at school-entry age (4-7 years), in adolescence (12-15 years), and in early adulthood or during the first pregnancy.
Worldwide, all countries are committed to "elimination" of maternal and neonatal tetanus (MNT), i.e. a reduction of neonatal tetanus incidence to below one case per 1000 live births per year in every district. As of August 2015, 21 countries remain that have not eliminated MNT.
WHO position papers
English and French versions (May 2006)
- Full list of WHO position papers and accompanying documents
- Immunization schedules
Disease burden and surveillance
- WHO prequalified vaccines
- Immunological basis for immunization: Tetanus (2006 update)
- Vaccine safety (DTP)
- Linking TTCV immunization with voluntary medical male circumcision programmes
- WHO health topic: Tetanus
Last updated: 17 August 2015