A year after seemingly eradicating polio, India has attained another public health success. Following a 15-year crusade, the nation has practically eradicated tetanus as a killer of mothers and newborns.
The illness, caused by a bacterium ordinarily found in animal dung and soil, typically infects newborn babies when the umbilical cord is slashed with an unclean blade. Mothers often get the illness by giving birth on unclean surfaces or being assisted by midwives with dirty hands.
The illness — also recognized as lockjaw, after its muscle tremor — typically sets in about seven days after a birth and is invariably deadly if not treated promptly. Fifteen years ago, the World Health Organization approximated that 800,000 newborn babies died of tetanus every year; now less than 50,000 do.
But the attempt to eradicate tetanus has moved slowly. The World Health Assembly — the yearly meeting of the ministers of health in Geneva — initially set 1995 as the target date for global eradication of the health hazard.
According to Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the director of the W.H.O.’s Southeast Asia region, unlike smallpox or polio, tetanus can never be eliminated because bacterial spores live in soil universally.
India has lessened cases to about one per 1,000 healthy births, which the World Health Organization considers “elimination as a public health problem.” The nation succeeded through a mixture of efforts.
In vaccination campaigns, millions of women received tetanus injections, which also cares for babies for weeks.
Women who were resolute about giving birth at home, per native custom, were given kits with antiseptic soap, a clean synthetic sheet, and a disinfected blade and synthetic clamp for cutting and fastening the cord.
The nation also created an agenda under which women were given up to $21 to give birth in a hospital or a clinic. “Lady health workers” from their area were given $9 and up to $4 for taxi fare to make sure mothers in labor went to hospitals. The employees earned the whole amount after visiting each baby and administering tuberculosis shots.
The multi-pronged strategy has not been easy but it has been effective. While there still instances of tetanus it is no longer considered to be a public health crisis in the country of 1.25 billion people.