Tetanus immunization protects teenagers now and for tomorrow
By Jennifer Butterfield
21 November 2008, Kepahiang, Bengkulu – At Kepahiang Senior High School, more than 100 teenage girls in green and white uniforms are crowded into the school’s hall, making the kind of cheerful racket that only 15-year-olds can. Above the din of giggles and shrieks, a health worker from the local Puskesmas Pasar Kepahiang shouts instructions through a loudhailer, urging the girls to roll up their sleeves and form a line. Today, they will all be vaccinated against tetanus as part of UNICEF’s campaign to protect every woman of child-bearing age against this deadly disease.
Today’s vaccination is the first these girls will have had since their early primary years, and they don’t seem to be looking forward to it. For a moment, it looks like no-one will volunteer to be first, but then Nys Pracella jumps to her feet. Her peers clap and cheer as she unflinchingly receives the injection, even posing for a photo as the needle goes in. Following her lead, the other girls fall into line to get their shots too.
Giving girls’ health a boost
At schools like this across Kepahiang and in dozens of other districts across Indonesia, thousands of girls are being vaccinated against tetanus in the hope it will protect them as they enter their childbearing years. UNICEF has provided thousands of doses of the vaccine, syringes and safety boxes, and helped the Government’s Health authorities plan an extensive immunization campaign to ensure no woman is overlooked.
It may seem a little early to worry about safe pregnancy for these girls, but the reality is that many will become mothers before their 18th birthdays. At Kepahiang Senior High School, two of the students are already married, and roughly 20 students each year become pregnant before their graduation.
While women can contract tetanus at any time, they are particular risk during childbirth if this happens in an unsterile environment like the family home or when delivery is assisted by untrained traditional birth attendants. Their babies are also at high risk of contracting the disease when unclean tools are used to cut the umbilical cord or when herbs or ashes are applied to the cord, as is still customary in many parts of Indonesia. Giving girls the tetanus vaccine before they become pregnant boosts the protection against tetanus they were given during their childhood, but they will also need to be vaccinated again during pregnancy to be fully protected.
“Two doses of the vaccine gives three years of protection, but if a woman has had five doses she is protected for up to 30 years, right throughout her child bearing years,” said Dr Kenny Peetosutan, a UNICEF Health Officer overseeing the campaign.
“So if you can reach young children in school and then again when they are older, you can give them long lasting protection.”
Mothers of tomorrow
“I don’t think about having babies yet, I’d like to become a scientist or a pediatrician when I finish school instead,” she said.
One of her teachers, 23 year old Melka, will also be receiving the vaccine today, but unlike Nys Pracella she is more than a little nervous about it.
““These girls are the mothers of the future so it is important that they are healthy and protected against the kinds of diseases that can harm them or their babies.
This is exactly what UNICEF and the Government are aiming to do. By giving tetanus protection to every young girl in high school today, we can dramatically reduce the risk of women and babies contracting this deadly disease in the future.