Tetanus is an infection of the nervous system that is always serious and often fatal. The bacteria, called Clostridium tetani, are all around us (for example in soil), and they enter the body through scratches, burns and cuts.
At least 1 in 10 of those who develop tetanus die, even in countries like the UK where there is good access to intensive care. In countries without good medical care, up to 9 in 10 of those who develop tetanus will die. Neonatal tetanus is an important cause of death in many countries in Asia and Africa. It is caused by infection of the baby's umbilical stump. The World Health Organization (WHO) has made it a priority to eliminate neonatal tetanus worldwide, and the number of cases is falling every year.
Tetanus is not passed from person to person. This means that it cannot be prevented by herd immunity. Catching tetanus does not make you immune; even those who catch tetanus and survive can get the disease again.
Before World War 2, around 200 people in the UK died of tetanus each year. The vaccine was introduced in 1961, and by the 1970s tetanus was hardly seen in children in the UK. There are now only a handful of cases each year in the UK, mostly in unvaccinated older people, or sometimes linked to the use of contaminated injected drugs. However, even though the number of cases is very low, there have still been 11 reported deaths from tetanus in the last 20 years in the UK.