Saving a Baby's Life, For Less Than the Price of a Cup of Coffee

Some people never discover their mission in life. But Alan Penn did at age six.

July 8, 2011, 4:54 PM

July 9, 2011— -- Some people never discover their mission in life. Others do, but usually not at the tender age of six. For Alan Penn, that is the precise age he discovered his purpose.

The year was 1954. The place: Honduras. Penn was brought there by his missionary parents who were giving tetanus vaccines to women and children. His job was to hold the babies while their mothers were being immunized.

Fast forward some 50-odd years later, and Penn, now the president-elect of Kiwanis International, is in Cambodia holding a child who can live a healthy life due to his organization's efforts to vaccinate mothers against maternal and neonatal tetanus, a painful disease that kills one baby every nine minutes, or 60,000 babies each year, in some of the poorest places on earth.

"I had tears in my eyes because I flashed back to when I was a little kid with my mom in the mountains holding the babies," Penn told ABC News. "And now, I am helping to eliminate this terrible disease."

The Eliminate Project

At its 96th annual convention in Geneva this week, Kiwanis International pledged to raise $110 million by 2015 in a final push to help eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus, a preventable disease that is typically contracted through unhygienic childbirth practices.

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The global campaign, called The Eliminate Project , is a partnership with the United Nations Children's Fund. The goal of the project is to eliminate this disease by vaccinating women of childbearing age, which will not only protect the mothers but also their future newborns.

"This will impact 61 million women and their children in just under 40 countries around the world," Penn said, noting that the cost of the vaccine is roughly $1.80, less than a cup of coffee.

A Trail of Broken Hearts

Three years ago Caryl Stern, the president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of tetanus when she traveled to Sierra Leone. "It was the first and only time I sat with a mom and watched her baby die in her arms," Stern told ABC News. She said the newborn had contracted tetanus after her mother, who gave birth at home, used a sharp piece of metal to cut the umbilical cord.

"I watched the color drain out of the baby's face. It was heartbreaking. What's really sad about that is that had we immunized the mom, she would have been able to pass on that immunization to her child during her pregnancy," Stern said. "The Silent Killer"

A mother of three children, Stern says this campaign is personal.

"Every day 22,000 children die of causes we know how to prevent," Stern told ABC News. "That is a really hard number to get your head around, but when you sit and have to look into the eyes of that mom who just lost her child, you realize that one is one too many."

Tetanus, often referred to as "the silent killer," is caused by bacteria contaminating open wounds and continues to be a major health problem in developing countries. Its effects are excruciatingly painful and last several days, affecting all skeletal muscles, resulting in uncontrollable, seizurelike spasms. In severe cases, tetanus causes the jaw to lock and affects the muscles used for breathing.

Most commonly, the disease is caused by the contamination of the umbilical cord if it is cut with a non-sterile instrument. When tetanus develops, mortality rates are extremely high, especially without the availability of appropriate medical care. If a newborn contracts the disease, there is very little hope for survival and often tetanus takes the life of the mother as well.

"One of the things we talk about in this project is that there is a connection between a mother and child," Penn said. "Tetanus breaks that connection."

For more information on The Eliminate Project and how you can get involved, visit

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