Help Salma Hayek Save Kids’ Lives

salma hayek breastfeedingActor Salma Hayek campaigns to prevent tetanus in newborns in Africa – here’s how you can help her.
By Gina Shaw WebMD the Magazine – Feature
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

NEW YORK (RPRN)03/20/09– Do you regularly buy diapers and wipes? Then, Salma Hayek wants you to know you can help her save the lives of women and children around the world. While you’re keeping your baby dry, you can keep another mother and her child alive, thousands of miles away in a developing country, says the newlywed mom and Academy Award-nominated actor currently doing a high-profile turn on 30 Rock.

“One baby dies every three minutes from something that is entirely preventable,” says Hayek. She’s talking about neonatal tetanus, a vaccine-preventable disease that kills 128,000 children and 30,000 women in developing countries every year. UNICEF projects that with enough support, neonatal tetanus can be entirely wiped out by 2012.

After the birth of her daughter, Valentina, in 2007, Hayek planned to put aside her jet-setting activism for causes like domestic violence and the environment. “I was thinking that I don’t have as much time and I have to focus more, so this year I’m going to take a break from causes,” Hayek tells WebMD. But then Pampers and UNICEF came calling with their One Pack=One Vaccine campaign, in which buying one specially marked package of diapers or wipes directly pays for one neonatal tetanus vaccine for a woman or child in a developing country. (To join Hayek and help her wipe out tetanus worldwide, visit UNICEF.)

In the mid-1980s, close to 800,000 newborns died from tetanus every year. Today, according to the World Health Organization, the disease kills fewer than 128,000 children annually — 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.”

Determined to make a difference, Hayek signed on as its spokeswoman and last fall, flew more than more than 20 hours to Sierra Leone. She was part of a UNICEF vaccination drive, where she herself helped to immunize young women against tetanus. Infants in developing countries like Sierra Leone are often infected with tetanus through their unhealed umbilical cord stumps, especially when the cord is cut with a nonsterile instrument — something that can happen often in remote areas of developing countries. Immunizing young women before they give birth protects both them and their babies, because they pass along their immunities during pregnancy.

“I was impressed that these young women, many of them really girls, were so eager to get this vaccine,” she said. “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.”

Maternal Instincts

Hayek understands how motherhood can change a woman’s view of the world. She’s still an ambitious force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry — Entertainment Weekly praised her as one of the “25 Smartest People in TV” in December 2008 — but since her daughter’s birth, the Ugly Betty producer has made some changes in how she looks at her career.

“I haven’t had the guts to do something violent or dark. I’m not there,” she says. “I actually canceled a movie. They said, ‘You can really move yourself as an actress with this role and go to a really dark place.’ I said, I don’t want to go there! Maybe I’ll change my mind later, but right now, I want easy movies that I can take my child along to. I want uplifting movies for the world.”

Lately, when she’s not working — and even sometimes when she is — most of her time goes to Valentina, whom she’s raising to be trilingual (French/Spanish/English) with husband Francois-Henri Pinault, a French businessman. “I stay home a lot with her, and feed her and bathe with her. That’s relaxing. Yesterday I started watching a movie during her first nap, and finished it during her second nap. I wait until she’s asleep and I sneak one in. That’s how I watch a movie these days.”

For the 42-year-old Hayek, becoming a mom at this stage of her life was definitely the right way to go. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world,” she says. “I feel that I’ve done enough things in life where I can appreciate the time I spend with her as my No. 1 priority and not feel I’m missing out on something. I feel I’m a lot more patient. I’m a more fulfilled human being now, and I probably wouldn’t have been 10 years ago. She gets a better mother for being born now.”

And women and babies in countries thousands of miles away benefit too, as Hayek’s mama-bear instincts for her daughter translate into a desire to protect other women’s children as well.

“Women in America can help other women and children from really remote places in the world, who are in such need. We can save their lives by doing something we were going to do anyway — buy diapers and wipes,” says Hayek. “How can you not?”

Adapted from the cover story of WebMD the Magazine’s March/April 2009 issue. Read the complete story here.