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New report celebrates wins against MNT

Apr 23, 2019

CHAD © UNICEF_UN0294769_Frank DejonghThe number of babies dying from tetanus each year has been almost cut in half since the start of The Eliminate Project, a new report shows.  

A group of scientists, statisticians and experts recently analyzed various data, which together showed an estimated 30,848 babies died of tetanus in 2017, the most recent year for which records were available. That’s a 47% drop since Kiwanis partnered with UNICEF in 2011 on The Eliminate Project. In 2010, 58,000 babies were estimated to die from tetanus every year.  

The report also showed that the number of newborns dying each day from tetanus decreased to 85 in 2017 from 160 in 2011.  

“I get emotional over it,” Kiwanis International Executive Director Stan Soderstrom said of the decrease in deaths. “When you’ve been in the field, you’ve seen it. You’ve experienced it. I’ve not been in a clinic where there was a dying child, luckily, but we’ve had members who have. They have seen the infant who is dying of tetanus.”  

Ann Updegraff Spleth, chief operating officer of the Kiwanis Children’s Fund, said that while Kiwanis celebrates the remarkable success of The Eliminate Project, “85 babies dying a day is still too many. Kiwanians never quit, so let’s keep it up until the number of babies dying each day is zero.” 

Updegraff Spleth added that stretch gifts and fulfilled pledges are as urgent as ever. “Immunizations cannot be purchased with pledges,” she said. 

One of the challenges of eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus has been the lack of data. In fact, most newborn deaths from tetanus go unreported because the births themselves are not reported. 

The new statistics were provided to UNICEF by the Maternal and Child Epidemiology Estimation (MCEE) project, which is led by the World Health Organization in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and other academic institutions. The statistics are more precise than what had previously been reported because of improvements in disease-monitoring and surveillance — an outgrowth of The Eliminate Project.  

Soderstrom recalled a trip to Madagascar with other Kiwanians in November 2013. They met mothers who had previously lost babies to tetanus, but later received the vaccinations and then had healthy babies.  

“They had their certificates of immunization and a couple of mothers were holding them up to show them to us,” he said. “Other mothers came over to see what was going on. Suddenly all the other mothers disappeared because they had run back to their houses to get theirs.” 

Before being immunized, these women lived in fear of their newborns dying from the excruciating but preventable disease. Newborns who contract tetanus suffer repeated and painful convulsions and extreme sensitivity to light and touch. Without hospitalization, there is little hope of survival.  

How far we’ve come 

In 1989, UNICEF and the WHO identified neonatal tetanus as a silent killer worldwide. 

By 2000, newborns in 59 countries — in addition to some of their mothers — were still dying of tetanus. During the next decade, UNICEF and its partners eliminated the disease in 20 countries. After Kiwanis joined the fight in 2011, 20 countries were declared to have eliminated MNT in half the time it had previously taken. 

Today, MNT remains a threat in 13 countries — nations where women are poor, have little access to health care or may be in danger from wars or internal conflict. The good news is that immunization plans are being implemented in most of these countries, and at least one is close to MNT elimination. 

But this life-changing work cannot continue without money. The funds Kiwanis is raising through The Eliminate Project pay for the vaccinations but also for transportation, volunteer training, monitoring and supervision. Those funds also pay health care workers and skilled birthing attendants — so that mothers give birth in clean, safe environments.  

Support moms and babies through The Eliminate Project with a gift today.