Around the World: Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus

Published on in Parents PACK

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.

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.