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Centre de presse

Press release

UNICEF hails global progress towards elimination of maternal and neo-natal tetanus

NEW YORK/GENEVA, 17 April 2002 - The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) today announced that 15,000 newborn deaths from tetanus were averted last year. The number of neonatal tetanus deaths that occurred last year was 200,000 reduced from 215,000 in 1999. The impact is largely due to the implementation of accelerated activities to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus in several countries, and the result of an effective partnership between Ministries of Health, UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA and other partners. The goal is to eliminate the disease by 2005.

"Reducing deaths from neonatal tetanus is one of the simplest and most cost effective means to help reduce the high neonatal and infant mortality rates in many developing countries, particularly in under-served communities" said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF.

Neonatal tetanus, which was eliminated in the industrialised world as far back as the 1950s is still a major killer of infants in the developing world, responsible for no less than 200,000 infant deaths every year and accounting for 8 percent of all neonatal deaths.

Unlike smallpox and polio, complete eradication of tetanus is not possible as the tetanus spores can survive for a long time outside the human body, in dirt and in the stool of infected people and animals. The disease can be transmitted without any human contact.

" But through effective vaccination of infants, school aged children and women at risk, and the promotion of safe and clean delivery practices, deaths from tetanus can become a public health problem of the past," Bellamy emphasised.

Neonatal tetanus is still a public health problem in 57 countries. Of these, three countries - Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe - will soon join the list of countries that have eliminated the disease. Ninety percent of all the cases of neonatal tetanus cases in the world come from only 27 countries, 18 of which are in Africa. The other countries are in South East Asia and the Middle East.

Most of these countries also have a problem with maternal tetanus. Maternal tetanus is responsible for at least 5 percent of all maternal deaths, and accounts for up to 30,000 deaths each year.

" Maternal and neonatal tetanus is common in poor countries, mostly affecting populations with little or no access to basic health care services and education," said Bellamy. "External support is therefore needed to help countries develop and implement effective programmes to achieve the goal."

These countries are working in partnership with UNICEF WHO, UNFPA, CDC, PATH, Basics and Save the Children to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus by 2005. So far the MNTE Initiative has received major donations from the US Fund for UNICEF, the Government of Japan, Exxon Mobil, Ronald McDonald House Charities, Gates Foundation and Becton Dickenson.

At a meeting of the MNTE partners in New York on April 16 & 17 2002, hosted by UNICEF, the partners reviewed progress and constraints, and agreed on optimal strategies to achieve global elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus by 2005.

"With effective immunization and safe delivery techniques no woman or child should die from tetanus," said Bellamy. "But we need the political commitment and financial resources to translate our programmes into action to eliminate the disease."

About maternal and neonatal tetanus

Neonatal tetanus is a highly fatal disease. Up to seventy percent of all babies that develop the disease die in their first month of life. It occurs as a result of unhygienic birth practices, leading to contamination of the umbilical cord with tetanus spores when it is being cut or dressed after delivery. The disease usually presents itself on the third day after birth, causing the baby to stop feeding due to stiffness of the jaw muscles. The baby then goes into painful convulsions, coma and eventually dies.

Maternal tetanus is also caused by contamination from tetanus spores through puncture wounds, and is linked to unsafe and unclean deliveries.


For further information, please contact:

Mohammed Jalloh, UNICEF Media, New York, 212 326 7516,