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Salma Hayek: Mom on a Mission

Motherhood inspired Salma Hayek to take on one more high-profile role: saving women and children in Africa.

Salma Hayek: A history of activism continued...

But then One Pack=One Vaccine came calling, and she learned about tetanus. “One mother or child dies every three minutes from something that is entirely preventable,” she says. Indeed, Hayek became so committed to the campaign that she made the recent journey to Africa -- her first trip without Valentina.

“The tetanus toxin produced by tetanus spores is one of the most potent toxins ever identified,” explains François Gasse, MD, a senior project officer at UNICEF who leads the neonatal tetanus campaign. “It attacks the central nervous system, producing painful, violent, and uncontrolled spasms that lead to death in over 70% of the cases, mostly through respiratory failure but also aspiration pneumonia.”

Tetanus in developing countries

A child born in Sierra Leone has more than a one in four chance of not living to see his or her fifth birthday, and many of those deaths are caused by tetanus. Unlike many vaccine-preventable diseases, tetanus is not contagious -- it’s spread through environmental exposure. So everyone at risk needs to be vaccinated to be protected. The neonatal form of tetanus occurs in newborn infants who have not received immunity from their mothers (because they have not been vaccinated themselves). Babies are usually infected through the unhealed umbilical stump, especially when it’s been cut with a nonsterile instrument -- which happens often in remote communities in developing countries.

Hayek even helped vaccinate some of the women who had come to receive their immunizations. “It’s not brain surgery. You just go in at an angle!” she says. “I was impressed that these young women, many of them really girls, were so eager to get this vaccine. When I was 15, if somebody wanted to give me a shot, I’d run away. But they line up for it … because it’s for their babies.”

Sierra Leone is not the only country where tetanus afflicts mothers and children. According to the World Health Organization, the disease -- which is the 5th leading cause of childhood mortality around the world --  kills 128,000 children annually (down from 800,000 in the mid-1980s), which is a testament to the power of the neonatal tetanus vaccine. “We have made dramatic progress,” says François Gasse, MD, a senior project officer at UNICEF, “but it remains an unacceptable cause of death as it is the easiest to prevent and affects the poorest populations of the least developed countries.”

(The World Health Organization estimates that more than 2 million children worldwide under age 5 die every year from diseases that could be prevented by routine vaccinations such as those most American children receive at their regular visits to the pediatrician. These diseases include: pneumonia (leading cause of death in children younger than age 5, with 1.7 million children dying of it annually);  rotavirus (causes severe diarrhea and kills 500,000 children worldwide annually); measles (380,000 deaths annually); and pertussis (270,000 deaths annually).

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