Fighting maternal neonatal tetanus

Published 8:38 pm Thursday, October 3, 2013

By Gene Denison

There’s a devastating disease that kills infants and their mothers that is virtually unheard of in Suffolk. Once the disease is contracted, the death rate is almost 100 percent among both the mother and her newborn child.

Unfortunately, where the malady is most prevalent — Southeast Asia and Africa — most women give birth in their homes, where knowledge of sanitation is almost nonexistent.

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The death rate from this disease, maternal neonatal tetanus, can be lowered to between 10 percent and 60 percent by getting mothers to give birth in a hospital where there are sterile conditions. The best way in the current environment, however, is to inoculate young women of childbearing age who will be delivering at home.

Death to the infant is painful and inevitable when the mother has the illness, because she passes it on to her newborn. More than 58,000 babies die of this terrible disease each year. In order to call a halt to it, The World Health Organization decided to work with UNICEF in trying to wipe this scourge from the face of the earth.

Needing money for the project, UNICEF looked to many groups for financing. One that stepped forward eagerly was Kiwanis International, which committed to raising $110 million to support the effort.

Since the program began, more than 119 million women have been immunized with two or more doses of the vaccine, and 31 countries have been declared free of maternal neonatal tetanus.

Kiwanis International is a service organization with chapters in countries all over the world. Suffolk Kiwanis is in Division 21 of the Capital district. Because of this many-layered organization, it becomes possible for Kiwanis International to raise large amounts of money through local projects.

Suffolk Kiwanis’ largest fundraiser has been its annual Peanut Project, held in the late fall and early winter. Through the money raised from the sale of the peanuts, they are able to support many local charities, including the Salvation Army and the March of Dimes, and to provide scholarships for Suffolk’s participating high schools and their graduating seniors. A portion of those funds is contributed to the Kiwanis International project, currently “Eliminate Maternal Neonatal Tetanus.”

Prior to this project, Kiwanis International, along with thousands of local chapters like Suffolk Kiwanis, raised $1 million to eliminate iodine deficiency disorder in hundreds of countries. The disorder is caused by lack of iodine in a country’s native soil. As a result food raised there will not have natural iodine, and that lack of iodine causes large growths called goiters, which are not removed in under-developed nations because of lack of facilities and too few doctors. The accompanying mental disabilities have devastated whole countries.

All it takes to reverse this problem are regular low doses of iodine in food. It is supplied artificially by adding iodine to salt, as we all see in the grocery aisle when we pick up a package of iodized salt.

Kiwanis also joined with UNICEF in that project and helped to supply the equipment to set up iodizing plants in hundreds of communities. That project virtually eliminated the disease in a vast majority of the affected areas.

The United States is truly blessed to have avoided so many of these types of diseases and make our citizens the healthiest in the world.

Learn more about Kiwanis by going to or visiting a Suffolk Kiwanis meeting. They are held every Monday night for dinner at Kelly’s Tavern at North Main Street and Constance Road.

Gene Denison had a long career in Suffolk, including at the Suffolk News-Herald. Email him at