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15,000 newborn deaths from tetanus averted in 2001, UNICEF says

15,000 newborn deaths from tetanus averted in 2001, UNICEF says

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today hailed the sharp drop last year in the number of newborn deaths caused by tetanus, when vaccinations and other health measures helped to save 15,000 lives.

"Reducing deaths from neonatal tetanus is one of the simplest and most cost-effective means to help reduce the high neonatal and infant mortality rates in many developing countries, particularly in under-served communities," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

Although eliminated in industrialized countries as far back as the 1950s, neonatal tetanus is still a major killer of infants in the developing world, responsible for no less than 200,000 infant deaths every year and accounting for 8 per cent of all newborn deaths.

Unlike smallpox and polio, complete eradication of tetanus is not possible because tetanus spores can survive for a long time outside the human body so the disease can be transmitted without any human contact. But Ms. Bellamy said measures could be taken to virtually eliminate the threat posed by tetanus.

"Through effective vaccination of infants, school aged children and women at risk, and the promotion of safe and clean delivery practices, deaths from tetanus can become a public health problem of the past," she said, while stressing that the political commitment and financial resources were needed to "translate our programmes into action to eliminate the disease."

According to UNICEF, 90 per cent of all the neonatal tetanus cases in the world come from only 27 countries, which are currently working with UN agencies and other partners to stop the spread of the disease through effective immunization and safe delivery techniques.

Up to 70 per cent of all babies that develop tetanus die in their first month of life, the agency said. The disease occurs as a result of unhygienic birth practices, leading to contamination of the umbilical cord when it is being cut or dressed after delivery. Maternal tetanus is also linked to unsafe and unclean deliveries.