Tetanus and Lyme disease and landscaping: much ado about nothing?
Updated: Oct 4
Tetanus and Gardening Safety
One hazard that gardeners may hear about (and some may tragically experience) is tetanus. If you search the internet you may find articles like this one, which says that tetanus claims the lives of over a million people worldwide annually (http://www.rose.org/rose-care-articles/tetanus-the-silent-killer/). Tetanus is doubtlessly a horrifying disease. Caused by the bacteria C. Tetani, tetanus enters the body through open wounds releasing a neurotoxin causing muscular stiffness and spasms of different parts of the body like the jaw (hence the infamous name lockjaw).
Other sources quoting the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) write that one third of all tetanus cases worldwide (remember 72,000 children and 1 million people in total die annually!) occur while a person is gardening or in contact with soil (https://dengarden.com/gardening/How-to-Keep-Safe-in-your-Garden-Tetanus). Tetanus is fatal in anywhere from 10-20% of treated and up to 60% of untreated cases depending on which part of the internet you land in.
Now before you call your doctor and cancel work to go and get a shot, there are a few things you should know that may calm you down. According to the National Health Service in the UK, most cases of treated tetanus occur in people aged 65 and up. If you are closer to that age range know that tetanus will infect your body generally through deep puncture wounds or cuts which receive little oxygen. If you wear gloves, and clean (soap and water) and bandage (or cover in some other way) wounds you significantly reduce your chances of getting an infection. Tetanus is found generally in soil contaminated with animal or human feces.
If you're still concerned about this particular gardening hazard you may feel a bit better when you learn that the total reported cases in Canada in 2016 was 5, the year before had 4 cases, and the year before had 6 (http://apps.who.int/immunization_monitoring/globalsummary/timeseries/tsincidencettetanus.html). You may consider this to be caused by popularity of the tetanus booster shot (repeat every 5-10 years as instructed by doctor to stay up to date). However, one study found that British Columbia, where only half of the population is up to date with their tetanus shot reported only 7 cases between 2004-2012. Prior to the vaccination tetanus was still very rare in Canada. During the 1920's and 30's between 26-55 deaths were attributed to it annually. In the United States the bacteria causes 200 deaths annually. Considering the population there is over 300 million, I'd say that's a fairly negligible risk.
Risk Level: Very Low
Course of Action: If you're a landscaper or avid gardener, get your tetanus shot. Generally speaking, you don't have much to worry about as the condition is exceptionally rare.
Lyme Disease and Gardening Safety
The symptoms of Lyme disease begin 3-30 days after being bitten by an infected tick. Early symptoms include a bull's eye shaped rash, fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Left untreated within months or years severe symptoms may develop including severe headaches, additional similar skin rashes, facial paralysis, intermittent muscle, joint, tendon and bone aches, heart disorders, neurological disorders, and arthritis (http://www.healthline.com/health/lyme-disease-symptoms#early-symptoms4).
Despite the serious nature of the disease bites are generally rare with Ontario reporting 305 confirmed cases (https://www.thespec.com/news-story/6138808-cases-of-lyme-disease-surge-in-ontario/) in 2015 and Toronto reporting 41 cases in 2016 (https://www1.toronto.ca/City%20Of%20Toronto/Toronto%20Public%20Health/Healthy%20Environment/Blacklegged%20Tick/Files/PDF/Active_Surveillance_2013_2017.pdf).
For gardeners who are relatively speaking (relative to other occupations) at a very high risk of tick bites its advised that you check yourself for ticks regularly, and remove any active ticks gently with tweezers (while attempting to preserve the tick so it can be tested in a lab). Bug repellent or bug repellent clothing (see DEET and Permethrin) is advisable only to people travelling in very highly tick infested areas (http://www.outdoors.org/articles/amc-outdoors/tick-off-most-effective-tick-repellents/).