Ms Oliver Bukirwa, a resident of Zana in Wakiso District, is struggling to raise Shs200 million to clear the medical bill for her son who spent 60 days in Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at a private health facility while suffering from tetanus.
She said her nine-year-old son Umar Muwonge contracted tetanus in October last year when he was playing with his siblings. Ms Bukirwa told this publication last week that Muwonge stepped on a rusted nail and got injured.
“He was staying with my mother and it was during Covid-19 lockdown. They went to the nearby clinic where they washed the wound and bandaged it. They didn’t know that he had contracted tetanus,” she said.
According to the mother, the boy was not given any injection for tetanus.
“He was brought back home and they told me he was injured but his wound was healing. He could even jump around yet the tetanus virus was in his body,” Ms Bukirwa said.
Later, he started experiencing pain and soon he couldn’t bend his legs and breathe well. He also developed a fever.
“When his condition deteriorated, we took him to St Francis Hospital, Nsambya, where we spent three days. We were referred to TMR International Hospital in Naalya where he was admitted in ICU,” Ms Bukirwa said.
The family said they came to Mulago Hospital around October but there was no space because of Covid-19 patients. That was the time the country was experiencing the second wave of the pandemic.
“His chest appeared to come outside and he was like a lame person. But the care was very expensive because the hospital charged us Shs3.5 million per day. We spent 60 days in ICU and the total charge was Shs235 million,” Ms Bukirwa said.
She added: “The boy is now fine. I have sold all that I can to clear the bill but I have failed to get Shs200 million. The hospital wants me to clear the bill this year but I am stuck. The hospital treated him even when we didn’t have money.”
But Muwonge is not the only person affected. Mr Kenneth Mwehonge, the executive director of HEPS Uganda, an NGO which has partnered with Nation Media Group and the Health ministry to do a campaign on tetanus on Friday, said another family lost two children to the disease.
“On July 27, a mother lost two children aged 13 and 15 to tetanus at Kibuli Hospital. The two stepped on broken glass while playing,” Mr Mwehonge said.
He added: “Due to less awareness about the disease and the required booster jabs, the family members first suspected witchcraft when symptoms started manifesting. By the time they took them to the hospital, it was too late. The second child died minutes after the burial of his sibling.”
“HEPS Uganda and the Stop Tetanus Club are launching a month-long awareness campaign on tetanus vaccination. The campaign is inspired by the recurrent preventable deaths resulting from tetanus despite the government’s tireless vaccination efforts against the disease,” Mr Mwehonge said.
Dr Hellen Aanyu, acting deputy director of Mulago Hospital, said the most obvious symptom of tetanus is the abnormal movement of the muscles which is termed spasms. She said the other symptom is fever.
“For one to get tetanus, the germ should enter the body and it is through an opening onto the skin like a wound, prick or umbilical cord,” she said.
She added: “Tetanus also affects the jaw area. There is stiffness, so the patient can’t open their mouth. There is also stiffening of different parts of the body because of the abnormal movement of the muscles.”
The targeted groups for tetanus vaccination are children who get their vaccine at 6, 10 and 14 weeks.
Women of childbearing age (15 to 45 years) are also vaccinated.
“That was mainly to protect the newborn babies because it is very easy for them to contract tetanus because of our practices when the baby is born. The challenge is that outside those groups, those who are not vaccinated are now getting the disease,” Dr Aanyu said.
The expert said even for young children who are vaccinated, the protection lasts for around seven years.
“That means they need to get a booster at least every 10 years. Usually, once you get an injury, they can inject you with the vaccine but if you got the injury and the tetanus bacteria at the same time, the vaccine may not help you because immunity builds up with time,” she said.
Dr Allan Muruta, the commissioner for Epidemics at the Health ministry, said people should get booster doses to minimise the risk of getting the disease.
He said many women still deliver in unhygienic conditions.
“We have some practices where we put soil and cow dung in the umbilical cord and yet they store the bacteria,” Mr Muruta said.