By Shantha Bloemen
BAFUT DISTRICT, Cameroon, 22 October 2010 – In the forests of northwest Cameroon, steep rutted dirt roads cling precariously to mountainsides, occasionally slipping into the ravines below. Distance here can’t be measured in mere kilometres, but in the effort it takes to get from one place to the next.
|VIDEO: UNICEF's Shantha Bloemen reports on a massive immunization campaign working in Cameroon to wipe out tetanus. Watch in RealPlayer|
To get from Bridget Apum’s village to the nearest health center, 5 km away, requires a huge effort – especially when pregnant or in labour. So Bridget’s daughter, Irene Tanyi, delivered her baby at home.
“My daughter went in to labour in the evening,” recalled Ms. Apum. “But there was no car to take her to the clinic to deliver, so we called the local midwife and she came and delivered the baby.
|© UNICEF video|
|Mothers and children in northwest Cameroon wait to receive tetanus vaccines at a makeshift immunization centre.|
“She cut the umbilical cord with a razorblade from the market,” she added.
When that cut was made, Ms. Tanyi’s newborn daughter, Eyah, contracted tetanus. She began to stiffen and was taken to the health center. Despite all efforts to save her life, she died two weeks later and was buried in a small grave behind her grandmother’s house.
While easily preventable through vaccination and in-clinic hygienic delivery practices, maternal neo-natal tetanus is still a major cause of deaths in mothers and their newborn babies. It takes the lives of thousands of mothers and newborns each year. Caused by a bacteria that infects cuts and wounds, most neo-natal tetanus develops through the unhygienic cutting and care of the umbilical cord during delivery, usually by unskilled birth attendants.
In 2002, the Cameroonian Government began a national plan to eliminate maternal and neo-natal tetanus. The programme targeted 121 high-risk areas. But the vaccination is a three-step procedure – and while coverage for the first stage was high, many women never returned for their second or third shots.
|© UNICEF video|
|A health worker prepares a syringe containing a tetanus vaccine in northwestern Cameroon.|
A 2007 evaluation revealed particularly low coverage in the country’s northwest region. In 2010, the area was targeted twice, with the goal of to reaching at least 90 percent of women with the second injection, 80 percent with the third and, ultimately, to eliminate maternal neo-natal tetanus in Cameroon altogether.
“We are gearing towards the end of the process and now it’s very important to finish with the districts that are still at high risk of tetanus,” explained UNICEF’s Immunization Officer Dr. Belyse Ngum Halmata.
The campaign targeted women between the ages of 15 and 49 and was carried out at health centres, village gathering points and even schools. UNICEF, through a fundraising partnership with Pampers, supplied the vaccines, provided logistical support to get them to remote areas and helped to train health workers in makeshift vaccination centres. Radio stations carried information on the programme and the location of immunization centers.
Esther Neba Ndang, one of the health workers administering vaccines in Cameroon’s Bafut district, braved torrential rain to set up her vaccination centre outside the local chief’s 400-year-old traditional palace. The chief’s family has ruled the area for 600 years and commands respect.
In a show of support, one of Esther’s first patients was the chief’s daughter, Princess Florence Abumbi.
“The woman is like a container, a calabash that is carrying some precious drink,” said Princess Abumbi. “That drink is the baby that she’s carrying in the womb. And the woman who is not protected against tetanus – that baby is exposed.”
The UNICEF-Pampers maternal neo-natal tetanus campaign has donated some 300 million vaccinations around the world to date. If its goals are achieved, no more babies will die of tetanus in Cameroon – and no more families will suffer loss at the hands of this fatal yet preventable disease.