6.4.4  What is neonatal tetanus?

Important! Refer a baby with signs of tetanus urgently to the nearest hospital or health centre. On the way protect the baby from hypothermia and give breast milk.

Tetanus in the newborn is caused by bacteria (Clostridium tetani) that infect dead tissues such as the umbilical cord stump. Tetanus bacteria are present in soil and animal dung, which may infect the cord or other wounds, for example during some harmful traditional practices. These bacteria produce a powerful toxin (poison) that affects the nervous system. Suspect tetanus if you observe the following signs in the newborn;

  • Increased muscle tone (spasm), especially of the jaw muscles and abdomen.
  • Generalised muscle spasms and convulsions, often precipitated by stimulation such as handling or loud noises. The baby may arch backwards during a spasm (Figure 6.5).
  • Most babies with tetanus will develop severe breathing difficulty and even with good medical care many will die.
A newborn baby having muscle spasms.
Figure 6.5  The typical muscle spasms of a newborn with tetanus infection.

6.4.3  What are the signs of skin infection?

6.4.5  How can you prevent infection in newborns?