The news of the gruesome massacre of nine female health workers in Kano on a polio vaccination routine exercise on Friday, February 8, came as a great shock to Nigerians and the rest of the civilized world. Who wouldn’t be shocked at such gruesomeness? They died in the line of duty, trying to free children of the crippling effect of the deadly polio virus. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks yet. However, dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s in Nigeria’s complicated political and religious minefield is not a piece of cake. Countless murder cases remain unresolved after decades including those of individuals like former Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Chief Bola Ige; and that of erudite Islamic scholar and preacher, Sheikh Ja’afar Adam.
The felling of those poor women in Kano marked the crescendo of an “age long debate” that has been ongoing- the controversy surrounding oral polio vaccination. However, this controversy is not peculiar to Nigeria alone. In 2003 the polio endemic was limited to only seven countries- Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Niger, Pakistan, and Somalia. With the exception of India, all other five countries are Muslim countries! Nigeria on the other hand has a large Muslim population. In 2013, all the other countries have successfully kicked out polio except Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In late 2012, an estimated twelve health workers in all, administering oral polio vaccines were killed in a series of attacks in Pakistan. This article intends to look at the issues from both a national and international perspective.
An avalanche of conspiracy theories and the appeal of its propagators simmer deep down in substantial Muslim communities, homes and hearts irrespective of education and exposure. In a region and country that is value-laden like Nigeria, religion and culture are the easiest galvanizing factors for or against any cause. Labeling a person, a thing or an idea as pro or anti- islam generates widespread acceptance, rejection and /sympathy or aversion. And so it has been with the polio vaccine thus far.
The origin of anti-polio vaccines like earlier vaccines for Smallpox, Chickenpox, Measles, Diphtheria, Tetanus and a host of others are as old as the development of vaccines themselves. The smallpox vaccine in England and the United States in the mid to late 1800s were met with fierce resistance and/ doubts and resulted in the birth of several anti-vaccination leagues.
In the article They Might As Well Brand Us: Working-Class Resistance to Compulsory Vaccination in Victorian England published in the Oxford journal “Social History of Medicine”, Nadja Durbach writes: “…many people objected to vaccination because they believed it violated their personal liberty, a tension that worsened as the government developed mandatory vaccine policies.”
Wolfe RM and Sharpe LK. In their article “Anti-vaccinationists past and present” published in British Medical Journal say: “Toward the end of the 19th century, smallpox outbreaks in the United States led to vaccine campaigns and related anti-vaccine activity. The Anti Vaccination Society of America was founded in 1879, following a visit to America by leading British anti-vaccinationist William Tebb. Two other leagues, the New England Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League (1882) and the Anti-vaccination League of New York City (1885) followed. The American anti-vaccinationists waged court battles to repeal vaccination laws in several states including California, Illinois, and Wisconsin”. Furthermore, the 1985 book: A Shot in the Dark written by Harris Coulter and Barbara Loe Fisher [President and co founder of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC)] is credited with having sparked the first modern popular concern about the risk of neurological damage from vaccines.
Interestingly, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US says that Most U.S. states, with the exception of West Virginia and Mississippi, allow individuals to apply for religious exemptions to mandatory vaccines based on their religious beliefs and objections. And in the US, such religious vaccine exemptions have risen in recent years.
In 1995, the Catholic Women’s League of the Philippines won a court order halting a UNICEF anti-tetanus program because the vaccine had been laced with B-hCG, which when given in a vaccine permanently causes women to be unable to sustain a pregnancy.
The website http://www.historyofvaccines.org/ from which I have drawn substantial information in writing this article states: “Suspicion and apprehension about vaccination is fairly common, particularly among several specific disenfranchised communities in the United States and internationally. For these communities, the suspicion is best understood in a social and historical context of inequality and mistrust. For example, several studies have found that the legacy of racism in medicine and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a clinical trial conducted with African Americans who were denied appropriate treatment opportunities, are key factors underlying African Americans’ distrust of medical and public health interventions, including vaccination.”
The website documents armed eviction of vaccinators in the following words: “Despite vaccination’s successes against smallpox, opposition to vaccination continued through the 1920s, particularly against compulsory vaccination. In 1926, a group of health officers visited Georgetown, Delaware, to vaccinate the townspeople. A retired Army lieutenant and a city councilman led an armed mob to force them out, successfully preventing the vaccination attempt.”
Again the website says:
“One of the most striking instances of vaccine suspicion in Africa has concerned the polio vaccine. In 1999, British journalist Edward Hooper wrote The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV/AIDS. He speculated that the virus that causes AIDS transitioned from monkeys to humans via a polio vaccine. He argued that the polio vaccine was made from the cells of chimpanzees infected with the primate form of HIV (Simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV), which adapted in humans and caused disease; and that there were coincidences in the sites where the polio vaccine was first administered and where the first cases of HIV originated. Although scientists and medical scholars have provided plentiful evidence to discount Hooper’s ideas, media attention has sparked conspiracy theories and concerns globally.”
In Conclusion, the website says: “Although the time periods have changed the emotions and deep-rooted beliefs—whether philosophical, political, or spiritual—that underlie vaccine opposition have remained relatively consistent since Edward Jenner introduced vaccination.”
But in reality, the twelve women who were killed in Kano on that black Friday on February 8 died a long time before now. They had long been killed by the high dose of socio- cultural, and religious conspiracy theorists. In the heydays of the Obasanjo Presidency, northern Nigerian states, following in the footsteps of Zamfara declared to run their states in accordance with the sharia. Riding on the deep religious sentiments of the masses, it was a priceless bait. But no sooner had the various governors settled in than they turned their backs on sharia. It was the classical duality of trophies – “Sharia” and “democracy”- yet truly giving none. They and their families were governed by a different set of laws and they decreed a different one entirely for the masses.
In 2003, the then governor of Kano state, Ibrahim Shekarau, nicknamed Mallam, refused to allow the polio vaccines to be administered in his state. The BBC records show that renowned medical doctor and President-General of the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria, (SCSN), Dr Ibrahim Datti Ahmed told the BBC that back then that “the vaccine is part of a United States-led conspiracy to de-populate the developing world.” Media Trust records give him credit for having brought the vaccine contamination to public domain.
Islamic scholars also fell over themselves in pronouncing the vaccines unsafe for administration to Muslim children. The BBC quoted prominent, eloquent and charismatic Kano based Islamic scholar and preacher, Ibn Uthman as follows: “I am sceptical and apprehensive about the polio campaign given the desperation and the rush of the sponsors, who are all from the West.” “They claim that the polio campaign is conceived out of love for our children”. “If they really love our children, why did they watch Bosnian children killed and 500,000 Iraqi children die of starvation and disease under an economic embargo?”. He further said: “The Pfizer drug test in 1996 is still on our minds. To a large extent, it shaped and strengthened my view on polio and other immunisation campaigns,”
In those turbulent years, Dr Haruna Kaita, then Dean of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical sciences was also at the forefront of the anti-polio vaccine group from the academia. Weekly trust kept us abreast of the unfolding controversy. Dr Kaita it was who took samples of the vaccine to labs in India for analysis. Using WHO-recommended technologies like Gas Chromatography (GC) and Radio-Immuno assay, Dr Kaita, upon analysis, said he found evidence of serious contamination. “Some of the things we discovered in the vaccines are harmful, toxic; some have direct effects on the human reproductive system,” he said in an interview with Weekly Trust. “I and some other professional colleagues who are Indians who were in the Lab could not believe the discovery,” he said. A Nigerian government doctor tried to persuade him that the contaminants would have no bearing on human reproduction. “…I was surprised when one of the federal government doctors was telling me something contrary to what I have learned, studied, taught and is the common knowledge of all pharmaceutical scientists—that estrogen cannot induce an anti-fertility response in humans,” he said. “I found that argument very disturbing and ridiculous.”
On the other hand, another test conducted at the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital by consultant physician, Abdulmumini Rafindadi and experts recruited by the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria (SCSN) found them free of HIV and anti-fertility agents. Rafindadi told reporters that “The findings of a series of tests which we carried out on the polio vaccine at the instance of SCSN have proved that the vaccine is free of any anti-fertility agents or dangerous disease like HIV/AIDS.
Twelve (12) samples of the oral polio vaccine were subjected to hormone assays to determine if they contained anti-fertility agents. Specifically the assays sought to determine the presence of Luteinising Hormone, Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), Prolactin, Progesterone, Testosterone, Oestradiol (E2) and Human Chrionic Gonadotropin in the vaccines.
Professor Emeitus Umaru Shehu, foremost public health consultant who was the first chairman of the National Programme on Immunization (NPI), Professor Herbert Cocker, a pharmaceutical scientist and chemist from the University of Lagos and Dr Rafindadi led the federal government delegation to South Africa in November 2003 with ninety-six (96) samples of the Oral Polio Vaccines (OPV).
Professor Umaru Shehu dismissed Dr Kaita’s claims on the vaccines. “The best methods and equipment were used, and no such thing as Dr Kaita described were found in the vaccines,” he said. He added that the test carried out in the University of Pretoria corroborated earlier tests carried out on the vaccines in Nigeria, which found the vaccines safe and free of foreign substances. Sadly, the then minister of health, Professor Eyitayo Lambo could not reconcile the divergent positions of both groups thus jeopardizing the eradication of the polio epidemic in northern Nigeria.
Dr. David Heymann, a UN official, said that the vaccines sent to Nigeria were the same as vaccines used in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, and that they have no effect on fertility. The vaccines are not produced in the U.S. Many are produced in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world he said.
Add this to the cases of America’s sterilization over 60,000 women, mostly African-Americans and Hispanics like Elaine Riddick in the 1920s, and several other clandestine CIA operations in several countries around the world, the position of the skeptics won’t be long lost. So, quite assuredly, it is very convenient for people to believe in the conspiracy theories against the backdrop of American antipathy. With such strong voices as Dr Datti, Dr Kaita, Ibn Uthman and a host of other scholars with considerable influence who are considered as gatekeepers and “our eyes” in the affairs of the world more or less seen as a chess game, the people definitely do listen to the trusted scholars than they would the Federal Government or the UN secretary General.
In her book The Politics of Polio in Northern Nigeria Professor Elisha P. Renne reports an interview she conducted in 2006: ‘According to one muslim scholar, Hadith 11, leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt,” means that the malamai have a duty “to protect their subjects” by advising them to refuse vaccination.’
However, the questions that agitated my mind when I read those articles back in 2003 and 2004, and later saw Dr Kaita in one of his “awareness” lectures in ABU were: for how long will Muslims continue to live in this world of me against the west? If governor Shekarau believed that the vaccines were laced anti-fertility substances as the likes of Dr Datti and Dr Kaita made him believe, why did he and those state governors suspicious of America not ask for vaccines to be produced for them by Indonesia, Turkey, Malaysia or Iran? How did Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar and other muslim countries eradicate polio? It has been about a decade now and my agitations haven’t abated. Sadly, innocent kids are being needlessly crippled while the controversy rages and the conspiracy theories thicken.
Mahmud Jega in his Daily Trust article This Story Does Not Hold Water beautifully captures the paradox of conspiracy in these indelible words “The Whiteman has thousands of research centres; how come they didn’t remember to drop the contraceptive agent in Quinine, Panadol, APC, Aspirin, Fansidar, Paracetamol and Ampiclox tablets?”
While the Nigeria Police may never unravel the murder of the Kano 9 despite its arrest of three journalists from Wazobia Fm whom it seems to be trying to link with an over-the-air incitement of the anti-polio campaign. Undoubtedly, the murder of these health workers has dealt a serious blow to the kick out polio campaign and with the devastation Boko Haram has left in its wake in the last couple of years in the region, the lights might soon go out on us if decisive action is not taken and fast enough.
Aliyu Bala Aliyu
University of Lagos