Over the past eight years, UNICEF and Pampers, with the help of mums doing their weekly shop, have helped to eliminate maternal and newborn tetanus in 10 countries. It’s a simple idea: between now and December 2013, Pampers will donate the price of one vaccine for every pack of special marked nappies bought.
But why is this campaign so vital? Prima Baby & Pregnancy Features Editor Alex Lloyd travelled to the Caribbean island of Haiti – one of the world’s 20 poorest countries and 1 of 26 where tetanus is still a threat – to see it at work…
After a long flight from London via New York, I catch our first glimpse of Haiti’s lush mountains and blue waters from the plane window. But as our flight descends over capital city Port au Prince, I can see the temporary camps where 300,000 people are still living after the 2010 earthquake that killed at least 100,000. This is no holiday paradise.
And once we exit the airport, the heat and chaos of the city is overwhelming. Traffic lights don’t exist on the potholed roads as we wind our way to UNICEF HQ, past piles of rubble, schoolchildren playing barefoot and street traders, selling anything they can to make ends meet.
So why is tetanus, which is spread by bacteria in the soil, a problem here? The UNICEF team tells me two-thirds of women give birth at home, in unsanitary conditions, with many babies delivered by a matron rather than trained midwives. These women use traditional birthing practices, like cutting the umbilical cord with the same razor used by the father to shave. Some even rub a crushed cockroach into the baby’s bellybutton – an old voodoo practice mistakenly thought to help the wound heal.
But there’s hope. Providing no more natural disasters hit this vulnerable nation and disrupt services (Haiti also suffered a hurricane in 2008), UNICEF believes it can eliminate tetanus by 2015 thanks to the vaccination programme.
We’re up at sunrise to visit a health centre in a remote mountain village of Taillefer. On the bumpy two-hour drive, doctor Jackson Emsly, who coordinates the UNICEF vaccination campaign across Haiti, explains the logistical nightmare of administering life-saving immunisations in an area with such poor roads, scarce electricity and families who live many hours walk from a hospital.
How they do it? First, they need to spread the word. Mums don’t have running water, let alone phones, so outreach workers called social mobilisers visit market places and churches to explain the necessity of the vaccinations and where to go for them. Next, armies of health workers (similar to our health visitors) walk for hours each week to clinics and temporary immunisation points, carrying cool boxes up mountains and across rivers just to reach these patients.
But why is it so important to be vaccinated against tetanus? I’m horrified when Jackson tells me that it can kill a newborn baby within 7 days, before a parent has even realised what’s wrong. The first symptom is a refusal to feed, due to lockjaw, followed by muscle spasms so strong that they can break a baby’s bones.
Arriving at our destination, hot and sweaty, I cannot believe the team of health workers I meet who did that journey on foot. But I’m even more in awe of Michelene Joseph, 22, who is 8 months pregnant and has come for one of her three tetanus jabs, which will pass immunity to her unborn baby until he is old enough for his vaccination. She has walked for 3 hours to be here – and plans to walk further when she goes into labour, to reach a hospital. “I’ll cross the river,” she explains. “It’s best for the baby.”
After meeting some local children, I’m invited into their homes. “I’m afraid it’s a bit messy,” says mum-of-two Janbennet, 27, as she shows me her one room wooden hut with a mud floor. While she had her children in the health centre, it’s shocking that so many women will give birth in such conditions.
We start the day at the vaccination clinic at a health centre in urban Croix-des-Bouquets, where mums (and even a dad) wait patiently on rows of benches with their children. The heat is stifling and there’s no privacy – you simple go to the front when your name is called and have your jab right there.
Yet the babies (all dressed in their Sunday best, despite families having so little) are well behaved, despite being up at the crack of dawn to make their appointment. Juliana Azor, 28, tells me she walked for an hour holding daughter Pechnaelle, 3 months, while others speak of riding pillion on a motorbikes, clutching their child in their arms. It seems dangerous, but the risk of tetanus is more so.
Next we visit the village of Thomland, where a team of health workers has set up a temporary clinic under some trees beside a church. Pregnant Christemene Jean, 25, says she walked for an hour over the mountains with 3 children, including a 1 year old, so they could all protected, after learning about the clinic from a social mobiliser. “My cousin died giving birth last week but we don’t know why,” she told me. “I know this vaccine will protect my baby. I want it to grow up and not know misery.”
As I pack my suitcase, I think about how we take for granted the privileges we are born with in Britain – a vast array of baby equipment on offer, choices about how to give birth and excellent healthcare. Before my trip, I simply visited my GP on the way to work and was immunised against a host of diseases, including tetanus, for free on the NHS.
I was told I might find this trip upsetting. While it has certainly shocked and humbled me, I can’t help feeling in awe of the Haitian people for their pride and stoicism, as well as glad that British mums have such a simple way to help. Because every pregnant women and her child deserve the best of health, no matter where they live.
Alex travelled with Pampers and UNICEF to Haiti for the launch of the eighth 1 pack = 1 vaccine campaign. For every specially marked pack of Pampers bought, Pampers will donate the cost of one vaccine to help UNICEF in the fight against Maternal and Newborn Tetanus (MNT). Visit facebook.com/PampersUKIre to find out more.