Idle Gossip Costs Lives in Ivory Coast but, Together, Mums Have the Power to Eliminate Disease

07/10/2012 22:14 BST | Updated 07/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Wherever you live, pregnancy can be a daunting experience and preparing for the birth can demand a complete change of lifestyle. Old habits suddenly have enormous consequences and the correct advice can be life-saving.

Mums in the UK are often left confused and bewildered by the barrage of often conflicting information that pours from advertising and the latest books on parenting trends. Baby showers can be a source of helpful hints but it seems there's always one scare monger too.

Recently I visited mums in Ivory Coast who had been protected against Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus (MNT) thanks to the UNICEF and Pampers '1 pack = 1 vaccine' campaign. It struck me that all pregnant women are afraid about the impending birth, no matter where they live. But the reasons for this fear are very different.

The mums I spoke to laughed at my fears about the pain of childbirth. One midwife summed it up when she said: "In Africa, we want to feel the pain. We want to remember it every time we look at our child. Only then can we feel proud." I'd rather be hypnotised in a birthing pool any day, needing to forget the pain or else stop at one child. These Ivorian mums had a greater concern: simply surviving the birth with a healthy baby.

Alleviating fear and risk is about being informed of the medical facts in order to keep you and your child safe during childbirth. The Pampers and UNICEF campaign has helped to protect 100 million mums and their babies from MNT, a fatal disease often contracted if the conditions of the birth are unsafe. The funding is vital, not just so UNICEF can buy vaccines, but to implement the logistics, equipment and training necessary to deliver millions of vaccinations. Additionally, UNICEF must also educate communities, because if a mum doesn't realise the importance of being vaccinated, she isn't likely to walk kilometres to the health centre to take part.

In the UK, literacy, education, healthcare and digital connectivity mean that many mums-to-be build knowledge by quizzing doctors and midwives, reading books and magazines and using forums to gather consensus on specific concerns. Pregnancy, childbirth and parenting are extremely emotive and personal issues and mums experience a cacophony of pressure.

In Ivory Coast, word of mouth is still the major form of communication for mums-to-be. Many issues are similar to the UK: interference from the mother-in-law seems to be universal and women tend to gossip and share horror stories.

Like disease, rumours can spread fast and seem unstoppable. In Ivory Coast, their destructive path is paved by traders, women who visit villages on market day and set up stalls to buy, sell and gossip. Ivory Coast is a volatile country, having recently emerged from civil war. This tension between ethnic groups, mixed with low levels of education across many rural areas has bred some toxic conspiracy theories about vaccines which are of great concern to mums in this West African nation.

One recent rumour is a direct affect of the recent war between rival tribes from the North and South. Depending who you speak to, either party may believe that vaccines are a post-war tactic of the rival group to finish off the job and kill more people.

An older myth was circulated five years ago, following a deadly toxic waste spill. Vaccines are purported to still be used by the Government to ensure that the affected population do not bear children with deformities.

Reproductive health is a nagging concern of these conspiracy theorists. For years people have believed that vaccines are being used by white Europeans to sterilise Africans as a form of population control. This misunderstanding is perpetuated when people misinterpret the packing of syringes which understandably confirm that equipment is 'sterile'.

Communications is the key to eliminating MNT. UNICEF is fighting misinformation by building trust at a village level. For example, networks of local community volunteers are continuously trained to provide crucial medical facts to their own villages.

On market days, UNICEF sets up vaccination sessions, so women can learn the truth and choose to be vaccinated on the day they are in town anyway.

By partnering with radio stations, we can spread life-saving health messages much further. Radio plays explore these sensitive concerns and educate listeners about how they can best protect themselves against diseases.

UNICEF works with religious leaders and other influential figures in the community, visiting religious houses to speak directly to villagers about their health. Our staff are local so they understand customs and can present medical facts in innovative and creative ways, often through staging plays or films.

Some villages are simply too far from the nearest health centres for mums to travel for their vaccinations. In these cases, UNICEF takes the vaccines to them, storing them in cold boxes and travelling to the most remote and rural areas either on a motorbike or by visiting communities in our mobile health clinics.

Pampers funding is supporting MNT vaccination activities in 26 countries - including Ivory Coast - where MNT is still a threat. Pampers and UNICEF have so far helped to protect 100 million women and their babies around the world from maternal newborn tetanus by providing life-saving vaccines as part of the "1 pack = 1 life-saving vaccine" campaign. However, the lives of 130 million women and babies are still at risk from MNT. They are based in some of the world's toughest to reach communities, so we need help more than ever to protect those most in need.