Why Are Catholic Bishops Boycotting Polio Vaccines in Kenya?
International health organizations reacted in shock last week after the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Kenya announced a boycott of polio vaccines. This comes on the heels of Africaís first year without a single polio case. The bishops have said they want to carry out more independent testing on the vaccines to make sure they donít contain estrogen derivatives, which they claim are being used to sterilize women and children.
Itís a claim that sounds like science fiction, but this issue has been brewing for some time. It started last year when a tetanus vaccination was accused of sterilizing around 500,000 women in Kenya. The Catholic Doctors Association claims that they picked six random samples of the tetanus vaccine from around Kenya and sent it to South Africa for independent testing. They said that when results came back,†30 percent of the vials contained an anti-pregnancy additive.
Doctors with the WHO and UNICEF†came out insisting the vaccine was safe and government officials backed them up, with the Minister of Health famously saying heíd encourage his own daughter to take the vaccination. Yet for many Kenyans a routine vaccination suddenly looked like a harrowing choice.
There is a mass distrust of vaccinations and western medicine both in Kenya and around different parts of Africa. Unlike U.S. fears about vaccinations (which have all been thoroughly debunked) a sheer mass of unethical medical trials across the African continent have only stoked these flames of fear.
Many on the continent feel that the long history of unethical medical trials and forced sterilizations points to proof of continued conspiracies. Forced sterilization and contraception programs existed in pre-Zimbabwe Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. And in case you think this was likely all during the colonial era, itís worth noting that up until 1989 chemical castration and forced sexual reassignment was taking place in South Africa.
And these unethical†issues remain until the present day. In 2004 and 2005, women in Cameroon were infected with HIV during a study on an anti-transmission medication. In 2003, a Ugandan trial for nevirapine, designed to reduce HIV transmission from mother to child, failed to report 14 deaths. And a mid-90s study on an anti-meningitis medication in Nigeria was administered without parental consent and resulted in nerve damage, brain damage and death for a number of children.
This is why when Ebola came to light, and western medical institutions started arriving,†many West Africans were suspicious. Many in the U.S. criticized this backlash as silly Africans not understanding what was best for them. Yet what many in the West failed to grasp was the long history of abuse Africans have dealt with at the hands of the scientific community.
The drop in deadly diseases across the African continent is truly commendable and due largely in part to these health organizations and grassroots community advocacy. However, these fears come from very real issues that have plagued societies around Africa since the colonial era.
Because of this, international organizations such as the WHO and UNICEF, should not breezily dismiss these possibilities. Rather they should engage with local communities about their issues. Complete transparency in what is contained in the drug, complete transparency in what the parents can expect and informed consent are all imperative for earning back the trust of these long-exploited communities.
Photo Credit: PV2 Andrew W. McGalliard/Wikimedia