Salma Hayek’s plane landed in Sierra Leone last fall, after some 20 hours in the air. She was part of a global health care initiative sponsored by UNICEF to vaccinate children against tetanus, and she had barely been on the ground an hour before she saw firsthand just what the disease can do. “We hadn’t even gone to the hotel yet, and we stopped at a hospital,” she says. “I went into a room where a baby was seven days old and had been born with tetanus. Something told me that we needed to leave,” out of respect for the family. “We stepped out of the room, and as we did, the baby died.”
This scenario is, unfortunately, all too common in places like Sierra Leone, one of Africa’s poorest nations, where basic medical care, including vaccinations, is often inadequate. UNICEF’s goal is to eradicate tetanus worldwide by 2012; the disease kills 128,000 children and 30,000 women in developing countries every year. Hayek’s trip was part of her role to help oversee the vaccination program as a global spokesperson for the One Pack=One Vaccine program. Proceeds from sales of specially marked Pampers diapers and wipes are directly donated to tetanus prevention efforts in African and Asian countries where the disease is most prevalent.
Hayek’s trip showed her the extent of the problem in close-up, intimate terms—sometimes literally so. Take the now much-publicized story of her putting a tiny newborn boy to her breast. Only a week old, he had been born into poverty-stricken conditions in a remote area of Sierra Leone. “He was so skinny,” Hayek recalls. “His mother had lost her milk, probably because of malnutrition.” So Hayek, with the mother’s approval, instinctively did what almost any nursing mother would feel compelled to do. She fed him. “You should have seen his face!” she says. “He just lit up. He became alive. I mean, how could I not feed him? I was in the field, my daughter wasn’t with me, I was either going to throw away the milk or feed this baby.”