Tetanus is caused by a bacterium that lives in the soil. It causes two types of illnesses. In adults, it can cause muscle stiffness, including seizure-like spasms; difficulty swallowing; and increased blood pressure and heart rate. About 1 of every 10 people with tetanus die from it. However, the second type of illness is worse because it affects newborns. Known as neonatal tetanus, this illness strikes quickly after birth and often results in death. Symptoms are similar to those of adults, but babies will have a stiffening of the muscles around their mouth that can prevent them from breastfeeding. Babies will also convulse and develop sensitivities to light, sound or touch. In 2013, it is estimated that about 49,000 infants died from this infection. Many of these deaths occurred in the developing world where unhygienic birthing or umbilical cord care practices introduce the bacterium.
In 1999, the World Health Assembly called for the elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus. Elimination can be achieved through maternal immunization and hygienic delivery and cord care practices. Called the MNT Elimination Initiative (MNT EI), this effort has focused on administering three doses of tetanus toxoid vaccine to women of childbearing age since protected mothers pass immunity to their unborn children. In addition, the effort promotes cleaner birth and cord-care practices through the distribution of supplies, training for local healthcare providers, and monitoring of disease.
Through the efforts of the MNT EI, 40 countries have eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus in the last 16 years. Unfortunately, when 49,000 children are still dying each year, more work needs to be done.
Visit the UNICEF website to explore a map of countries that are still working towards elimination.