Immunization campaign in Cameroon fights deadly neo-natal tetanus
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.
“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.
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.
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.
By Shantha Bloemen