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UNICEF Begins Tetanus Immunization Campaign in Afghanistan

The U.N. Children's Fund is starting a weeklong campaign to immunize thousands of Afghan women against tetanus. This is part of a global campaign to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus by 2005. UNICEF says health workers aim to reach 740,000 Afghan women aged 15-45.

UNICEF says Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. It says almost half of all deaths among Afghan women aged between 15 and 49 are a direct result of pregnancy and childbirth.

UNICEF Spokeswoman, Lynn Geldof says protecting women against tetanus is one of the simplest and most effective ways of reducing the country's high maternal death rate. She says the vaccine also will keep many newborn babies alive.

"About the global impact of tetanus, 70 percent of babies who contract it die in the first month. So, this protection is not just for mothers, but also for newborns. A quarter of all neo-natal deaths are attributed to tetanus. So, this is an extremely important campaign," Mr. Geldof said.

A recent study by UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says about 1,600 women die for every 100,000 live births in Afghanistan. That is 200 times higher, for example, than the rate in the United States.

Neonatal tetanus is a deadly disease and a major killer of infants in the developing world. UNICEF says about 200,000 infants around the world die from the disease each year.

Neonatal tetanus occurs as a result of unhygienic birth practices. This leads to contamination of the umbilical cord with tetanus spores when it is being cut or dressed after delivery. Ms. Geldof says health workers are using a new device that will facilitate the immunizations.

"It will reach out quite broadly for the first time because they are employing Uniject, which is a simple vaccination format where the needle and the capsule are pre-prepared. So, it does not involve massive training. You do not have to be a health person to do it. And secondly, it does not require a cold chain system so that makes it easier logistically," she said, referring to the need to refrigerate some vaccines.

The campaign is conducted by the Afghan Ministry of Health, with support from UNICEF, the World Health Organization and private agencies. Ms. Geldof says more than 1,000 vaccination teams will fan out across Afghanistan's major cities this week. She says women living in villages will be targeted in two further immunization drives later in the year.