When I received two shots of the tetanus vaccine in the second and third trimesters of my pregnancy last year, it wasn’t meant to be a population control measure.
Today, Cardinal John Njue warns that it is a family planning dosage administered to women in selected districts, yet the only effect of the tetanus injection to me was a sore left arm.
Cardinal Njue’s statement is a medical myth that could hurt Kenyans, although it must be like music in the ears of the anti-family planning crusaders.
Sadly, we live in a society that is very vulnerable to myths that we tend to believe more than actual evidence.
A myth is defined as a widely held, but false belief or idea, which is too readily accepted as an absolute truth. For instance, this particular myth is being propagated as a population control measure because it is being administered to women aged between 14 and 47 years.
That particular age bracket is the reproductive age, thus the claims by Cardinal Njue appear to contain more truth than the fiction they actually are. The remarks may reverse the gains made in reducing the number of newborn deaths due to tetanus infections.
Health myths can also be traced to developed countries. In the United Kingdom, a similar myth gained notoriety to the effect that the measles vaccine causes autism. This led to parents exposing their children to the dangerous virus.
That such myths persist is a clear indicator of their deleterious effects on health systems and practice.
Obstetrician and gynaecologist Simon Kigondu says the simplest and most effective method of preventing tetanus in newborns is to give two doses of Tetanus Toxoid to first-time mothers, and only one injection during subsequent pregnancies.
WHERE BIRTHS OCCUR AT HOME
According to Dr Kigondu, the tetanus injection is important especially in a country where half of the births occur at home under traditional birth attendants.
For those who deliver in hospitals, they could get exposed to environments that encourage the bacteria, which enter the body through cuts, or through the wounds caused when the umbilical cord is cut.
Infants infected with tetanus develop muscle spasms and convulsions, and have difficulty swallowing. Even with treatment, many infants do not survive the complications from this disease.
“When you are immunised with a tetanus shot, the antibodies pass through the placenta, so your immunity passes to your infant,” Dr Kigondu says.
Kenya is among 51 countries that have not contained maternal and neonatal tetanus, and this has made the division of Vaccines and Immunisation in the Ministry of Health to develop a tetanus elimination strategy, which will reduce the child mortality rate by two thirds and maternal mortality by 75 per cent by 2015.
Dr Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist, says such medical myths attain the power of truth through transmission when uttered by authority figures like religious leaders, parents, teachers or even older friends.
“The longer the myth is held as true, the more difficult it is to debunk it and replace it with the actual explanation,” he says.
“Myths are difficult to extinguish because humans are wired to believe stuff that is believed by the majority around them,” the psychiatrist notes.
I weep for the children we will lose due to such remarks.
Ms Muraya is a health writer with the Nation. ([email protected])