Around the world, a baby dies every nine minutes from tetanus.
To counter this, the international volunteer organization Kiwanis is seeking the complete elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus, as the life-threatening disease still prevails in many developing countries.
Kiwanis, through its global campaign called “The Eliminate Project,” has been aiming since 2010 to provide vaccinations to women in 40 countries. Kiwanis clubs are hoping to raise $110 million through fundraising events by next year.
The project is being run in conjunction with UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s fund.
According to the World Health Organization, tetanus is one of the world’s leading causes of deaths among newborns due to unhygienic deliveries and umbilical cord care practices, and close to 90 percent of babies who contract the disease die from it.
UNICEF, the WHO and the United Nations Population Fund originally set a goal to globally eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus by 2015.
In response UNICEF, together with Kiwanis, set out to eradicate the disease in 40 countries, and there are still 24 countries — including Cambodia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan — where it still exists.
The disease is easily preventable when delivery and umbilical cord care practices are carried out under hygienic conditions, or by immunizing mothers with a cheap and effective tetanus vaccine.
If women are offered three doses of the tetanus vaccine, which costs $1.80 (about ¥187) per shot, it is estimated that during the five-year campaign, 61 million women and babies will be saved or protected from the disease.
Japan on its own has raised ¥100 million since the Kiwanis campaign was started four years ago and is now at the top of the world rankings in terms of amount of donations per member, followed by Canada, Australia, Taiwan and Malaysia.
Last month, when the Japan office hosted the organization’s international conference for the first time, Koshiro Kitazato, the project’s representative in Japan, said he is happy that when this kind of project is launched, the Japanese are “willing to actively take part in it.”
“After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese people, especially those in Tohoku, were saved in many ways by donations from other countries. Now, the Japanese feel that they want to give something back to other countries in return,” he explained.
Kitazato also happens to be a distant relative of doctor and bacteriologist Shibasaburo Kitazato, who discovered the tetanus bacterium in 1890, a discovery that led to the development of a tetanus vaccine in 1924.
According to Kiwanis, if a pregnant woman is not vaccinated and becomes infected with the tetanus virus, her baby has a high risk of contracting the disease in the womb or during delivery.
Within days, the bacteria multiply and produce a deadly toxin that spreads throughout the baby’s body, causing muscle rigidity and painful convulsions.
Because a baby with the disease becomes extremely sensitive to sound, light and touch, the mother cannot hold her own baby in her arms. And if they are not treated properly, newborns die within days.
Kiwanis, which now has its head office in Indianapolis, Indiana, was founded in Detroit in 1915 as a volunteer group to support children.
The organization, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, has grown to be one of the three largest volunteer groups worldwide today, after the Lions Club and the Rotary Club.
“Each one of us was born to a mother, so we can identify with the connection between a mother and a baby. (The project) exists to protect the connection between the mother and child,” Randy Delay, chairman of “The Eliminate Project,” said during the conference.
There are 8,000 Kiwanis clubs with 590,000 members in 80 countries around the world, including the Tokyo club that was founded in 1964.
In Japan, there are 31 clubs from Hokkaido to Kagoshima, with 1,700 members in total.
Through this project, Kitazato said he hopes Japanese people will become more familiar with Kiwanis and its other activities, such as making dolls for sick children in hospitals and supporting children in areas affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.