UNICEF supports the elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus
MOUNT HAGEN, Papua New Guinea, 16 February 2016 - Malvina Peter, who is eleven years old, grimaces at the sight of needles going into the arms of her peers as she anxiously waits for her name to be called out to get her tetanus jab.
“I hate injections even though this is not my first time to get one”, Malvina explains in between giggles while watching her classmates wince in pain from the injection. “I don’t even know why we are getting this injection but our teacher and the nurses told us it will help us in the future, so it must be good for us,” she adds with a serious face.
Forced to flee from warring tribes that burned down her school in her home village at Kandep, Enga Province, Malvina, an only child, in grade three, now attends Korepa Primary School in the neighbouring town of Mt. Hagen in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.
She is amongst 200 students at the school who are receiving the tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccination as part of an immunisation service provided by the Family Health Services Unit of the Mt. Hagen General Hospital.
Maternal and neonatal tetanus (MNT) is still a threat for women and new-borns around the world but particularly rampant in developing countries.
Tetanus is a deadly but highly preventable bacterial disease that causes muscles to tighten, often causing a person’s neck and jaw muscles to lock making it hard to open the mouth or swallow. The bacteria that causes tetanus is found in soil and enters the body through a puncture or wound where it grows. People can be protected from tetanus through immunisation and to some extent by ensuring open wounds are not contaminated with the bacteria which, unfortunately, is present everywhere.
In many parts of Papua New Guinea the risk of getting infected with tetanus is even higher. Low immunisation coverage rates coupled with unsafe child birth delivery practices in unhygienic conditions that are common in many rural communities put many women and their infants at risk of getting tetanus.
Although the national immunisation coverage has slowly improved over recent years, key contributing factors such as the inability of weak health systems to support vaccination services, poor geographical access to health services, poor cold chain systems and management to maintain the potency of vaccines and inadequate funding support means the country is not reaching national immunisation targets.
UNICEF is helping the PNG Government to implement its Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus Elimination (MNTE) strategy through a four-pronged approach focusing on strengthening the TT vaccination service required for women of child bearing age, TT vaccination for pregnant women, promoting clean and safe delivery and umbilical cord care practices, and conducting effective surveillance to detect and report cases of maternal and neonatal tetanus. UNICEF supports the procurement of TT vaccines, outreach immunisation to remote communities and schools and also supports training of health workers in immunisation.
Paul Ulg, a Health Extension Officer, for Hagen Health Services, who is with the team of health workers vaccinating students explains that the immunisation service they are providing for the students is part of their routine outreach immunisation services aimed at reaching a target group like schools where students would otherwise not have the opportunity to be vaccinated.
“We are vaccinating grade three students with TT, who are aged seven to eleven, at primary school entry level and to grade eight students who are mostly sixteen and eighteen year old students. This is important as they would be leaving school at the end of the year and would not have the opportunity to be vaccinated,” Paul says.
“There are two things we normally see that prevents them from accessing this service at hospital. One is the long distance from their home to the hospital and the other is ignorance. This is our first visit to the school as part of our routine outreach immunization service to schools that we do every year because there are new students being enrolled and new students reaching grade eight who will be leaving school and it is important for them to be vaccinated against TT,” he adds.
The immunisation service provided by the hospital for schools is a blessing for many. Students like Malvina who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to be vaccinated at all now will be fully immunised by the time they are ready to leave school.