Tetanus is not something I had given a great deal of thought to before my field trip to Cameroon. The last recorded case in the UK was over 80 years ago and children are now routinely vaccinated against the disease. Yet in Africa, and many parts of the developing world, maternal and newborn tetanus is still a reality.
From Lembe village we made the twenty minute drive to Akussa village, home to Madame Ngans Sophie and Mr Nkodo Tongo Isodore. They were the grandparents of the baby treated for newborn tetanus by the District Medical Officer we had spoken to that morning. He died in 2008, aged just three weeks, before there was even a chance to give him a name.
Despite the heat and their obvious poverty, Mr Isodore had dressed for our visit in a suit and tie and immaculately polished shoes. It was moving to see the effort he had gone to on our behalf and the importance he clearly placed on our visit. As his wife sat quietly in the corner of their very basic home, Mr Isodore told us the story of his grandson, born to one of his daughters, Madame Christelle when she was just 14.
His daughters had been told that any new boyfriend must be introduced to the family so they could get to know him. However his fourteen-year-old had not done this, and on discovering she was pregnant had fled the family home, concealing the pregnancy from her parents.
She returned home months later, unsure of exactly how many months pregnant she was. The father of her unborn child was told to take responsibility for her, but instead he disappeared and was never seen again.
During that time the girl received her first tetanus vaccine. However, the outreach motorbike delivering the second crucial vaccine broke down. So when she gave birth to a baby boy at home shortly afterwards, she was not fully protected against the disease. Her mother cut the umbilical cord using a razor blade dipped in alcohol to sterilise it and tied the cord with thread used to plait hair that had been bought from the local market. The thread was not clean.
For three days the consequences of the unclean thread were not obvious, but then the baby became stiff, changed colour and refused to breastfeed – all classic signs of newborn tetanus. The girl’s father borrowed money and took them both to the local health centre where they were sent home with medicines to inject.
By the evening the baby’s condition had deteriorated. Mother and baby both went to the district hospital where they remained for seven days. After that time, and showing no signs of improvement, they were sent home. The baby boy died the same day.
Tetanus is known as the silent killer. It is still a reality in the developing world. Pampers and UNICEF have been working in partnership since 2006 to help work towards eliminating the disease and raise money for tetanus vaccines to protect the millions of women who are still at risk from the disease. It is a goal which can be achieved in our lifetime, with our help. For every pack of Pampers products purchased with the “1 pack = 1 life-saving vaccine” logo, Pampers will donate the cost of one tetanus vaccine to UNICEF.