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BECAUSE VACCINES

India has eliminated tetanus as a mass killer, one year after getting rid of polio

By Annalisa Merelli

It’s been just over a year since India was officially declared polio-free, and the country’s public health system has just achieved another remarkable result: tetanus is no longer listed as a public health threat.

The success is part of the Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus Elimination Initiative, an immunization drive started by the United Nations in 1999 to halt the deadly spread of tetanus amongst mothers and newborns (often a consequence of the unhygienic conditions of delivery, which exposes them to the bacteria).

India—part of the immunization program together with 58 other countries—has achieved the goal of reducing tetanus cases across the nation to one in of every 1,000 live births, ahead of its target deadline of December, announced prime minister Narendra Modi on Aug. 27. He credited Mission Indradhanush, a national program (part of the larger UN framework) aimed at increasing the immunization rate amongst Indian children against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, childhood tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis B and measles from 60% to 95%.

Global progress to eliminate tetanus has been remarkable. Over the past 15 years, the worldwide death rate from tetanus dropped from over 800,000 deaths in 2000 to under 50,000 this year. However, in 22 countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, the disease still represents a public health threat.

As UNICEF points out, what made India’s program stand out is the fact that it didn’t rely purely on immunization drives. Childhood vaccinations were supported with a policy that encouraged women to give birth in sanitary environments: the Indian government offered a payment of $21 for every delivery in a hospital, and women who insisted on a traditional delivery at home were offered free sterilized delivery kits.