The U.N. Children's Fund, in partnership with diaper-maker Pampers, is launching a global campaign to eliminate tetanus by 2012. UNICEF reports the disease kills about 140,000 newborn infants and 30,000 mothers every year in the poorest countries in the world. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA in Geneva.
It is the poor that die. Tetanus has been virtually eliminated in the wealthy industrialized world as a killer of babies and their mothers. But, the disease hangs on in 50 of the poorest countries in the world.
The majority of mothers and newborns dying of tetanus live in Africa and Southern and East Asia. They live in areas where women are poor and have little access to health care.
Philip O'Brien, UNICEF Director of Private Fundraising and Partnerships in Geneva, says tetanus need not be a death sentence. He says a cheap, safe, effective vaccine is available, which can prevent this deadly disease.
"Now we have seen progress over the last 10-15 years. Numbers of deaths have come down. But, there is still a long, long way to go. I think it is one of the things that we know how to do. We have the resources to do it. We need the political commitment to make sure that every mother is vaccinated and therefore her unborn child is protected. But, we cannot do this alone," he said.
O'Brien says great public health advances, such as the eradication of smallpox and the drive to get rid of polio, have needed extraordinary partnerships between the public and private sectors and government involvement.
And, that's where Pampers comes in. This maker of baby diapers already has provided more than 50 million vaccines to UNICEF.
Vice President of Procter & Gamble Baby Care in Western Europe, Austin Lally, says his company aims to raise an additional 200 million vaccines over the next three years. One way of doing this, he says is through a campaign, which has just begun in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for the benefit of this tetanus initiative.
"Every pack of Pampers that is bought between the first of October and the end of the year will actually contribute directly to raising one vaccine which UNICEF will distribute to help move towards this goal of eliminating tetanus," he said.
And for this purpose, Pampers has chosen Hollywood actress, Salma Hayek, as spokeswoman for the global Pampers/UNICEF campaign. Hayek, who has just returned from a visit to Sierra Leone, says it was heartbreaking to meet young mothers who had lost their babies to tetanus.
But, she says out of tragedy can come hope. She recalls an encounter with a woman who also had lost a child to this disease.
"She did not understand what had killed her first born child until UNICEF came and educated people about the disease and started providing the vaccines. It is because of this that I was able to sit in her house with her and her four healthy children that came after that first tragedy," she said.
Tetanus is caused by a bacteria, which enters the body through open wounds. Babies are most at risk in poor countries where women give birth at home, often in unsanitary conditions.
A woman, who receives a course of three vaccines, at a cost of less than two dollars, can pass on immunity to her unborn child and save his or her life.