• Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Vaccines and conspiracy theories in Nigeria

“Doubts were sown in the minds of some members of the public, leading them to withhold their children from vaccinations, a situation described as ‘vaccine hesitancy’.

The English physician Edward Jenner is credited with the first successful vaccination in 1796, when he inoculated an 8-year-old boy with material collected from a cowpox lesion. However, it is on record that from the 15th century people in different parts of the world had been using controlled mild exposure to smallpox as a way of inducing immunity in people. In Yorubaland, as historian Toyin Falola avers, the use of scarification (gbere) on the head and other parts of the body implied the existence of a science akin to vaccination going back several millennia.

Vaccination has since grown to become a world-wide health practice. At birth, every Nigerian child is supposed to get BCG, Oral Polio Vaccine and Hep BO vaccination. At the age of six weeks, the same child gets Pentavalent vaccine, Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 1, OPV1, IPV1, as well as vaccination against Rotavirus Vaccine 1. At ten weeks, the baby gets Pentavalent Vaccine, Pneumococcal vaccine, OPV2 and Rotavirus Vaccine 2. At 14 weeks, he gets Pentavalent and Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine3, OPV3, Rotavirus Vaccine 3, and IPV2. At six months he gets his first dose of Vitamin A. At 9 months he is vaccinated against Measles and Yellow Fever. When he celebrates his first birthday, he gets the Meningitis vaccine and his second dose of Vitamin A. At 15 months, he is due for his second dose of Measles vaccine. For the girl-child, nowadays, sometime after her 9th birthday, she is supposed to get vaccination against the Human Papilloma Virus.

Apart from these routine immunisations, some countries require travellers coming into their territories to show evidence of recent vaccination against communicable diseases, especially yellow fever.

Before the advent of COVID-19, there were already some people, especially in the USA, who saw the imposition of any compulsory vaccination schedule on their children by the government as an encroachment on their personal liberties. In the UK, some fringe controversy swirled for some time around the MMR vaccine and an alleged connection with autism. Doubts were sown in the minds of some members of the public, leading them to withhold their children from vaccinations, a situation described as ‘vaccine hesitancy’.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to a determined effort by ‘anti-Vaxxers’ and conspiracy theorists to query the usefulness, relevance, and even intentions of all vaccines. The consequence of this is shaping the uptake and recent conversation concerning vaccination in Africa, especially in Nigeria.

First is the issue of the Malaria vaccine.

Malaria is a disease caused by the plasmodium parasite. In 2022, there were 249 million attacks in 85 countries, resulting in 608,000 deaths. Of these, 233 million cases occurred in Africa, leading to 580,000 deaths. Many of those deaths were among children under the age of five. One child dies nearly every minute somewhere on the continent. While it is true that artemisinin-combination therapies have made the illness more survivable and insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) are very useful in prevention, and while it is possible that there are effective traditional remedies waiting to be packaged and scaled for general use, it is imperative for the human development of Africans not just to ‘Roll Back Malaria’ but to ‘Kill Malaria Off’. Efforts are ongoing to kill the mosquito more efficiently and prevent it from reproducing. Vaccines have now been developed, which have led to a significant reduction in mortality and morbidity in children. Nigeria recently joined a growing trend among African countries with the planned rollout of the R21 vaccine in Bayelsa and Kebbi States. It may be the beginning of the end for malaria.

Then there is the human papilloma virus in young girls, which is associated with an increased risk of developing cancer of the cervix in later life. The HPV vaccine is in use in 125 countries. Recently, the vaccine was added to the routine immunisation programme in Nigeria.

Not every Nigerian is celebrating these advancements in public health.

A viral video on social media shows a Kenyan doctor addressing the doyen of African dictators, President Yoweri Museveni. The doctor is expressing worry over sinister plans to ‘depopulate Africa’, through the addition of the fertility hormone HCG to the vaccine against Neonatal Tetanus given to African babies in an earlier tetanus eradication campaign, and through ‘unnecessary Malaria and HPV vaccines.’

While the claim concerning HCG and NNT vaccine needs to be investigated thoroughly by local scientists, the video has led to growing concern and rekindled conspiracy theories.

But the doyen of African conspiracy theorists is a Nigerian, a brilliant preacher who leads a Pentecostal Church and has a massive youthful following. Recently he declared without batting an eyelid ‘…there was never a proof that vaccines ever worked’.

This Pastor in his sermons and documentaries spreads a strong message against the Malaria and HPV vaccines. He declares ‘Malaria was never a problem to those in Africa’ – a statement every doctor on the continent could readily debunk, and that vaccination is part of ‘an evil agenda…long in the making’. Vaccines, he asseverates prophetically, are a way of ‘depopulating the world’.

During the COVID 19 pandemic, the Pastor’s network was fined by OFCOM, the British Media Regulator for broadcasting ‘misleading and potentially harmful statements about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines.’ But his anti-vaxx campaign is relentless, and his reach is long. His ‘Teaching’ and ‘Healing’ services are regularly broadcast to millions of listeners worldwide.

The battle of Medicine and Public Health against infectious disease may appear to be progressing, through Research and Development. Hopefully African nations led by Nigeria will see the national security imperative of stepping up with massive investment to become innovators and manufacturers of vaccines themselves, instead of remaining consumers who rely on handouts from other races, thus creating space for paranoia and conspiracy theorists, and even the possibility of mischief – who knows.

Meanwhile there is an ongoing battle for the minds of the people that must be vigorously fought and decisively won. The lines are just getting drawn.

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