Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH: Vaccines Spark Controversy In Nigeria

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Nov 6 2003 (IPS) - The government of Nigeria has rushed health workers to Daramba, a village on the border with Niger, following an outbreak of whooping cough – one of the six main killer diseases for children.

Health officials blame the outbreak on the attitude of villagers who have shunned routine immunisation. “The people of the area often reject immunisation on the grounds that it is not safe,” says one health official, who refused to be named.

The villagers have latched onto a statement by a popular medical doctor in the northern state of Kano who has openly condemned the immunisation programme. Dr Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, a respected figure in northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim, claims the vaccines could cause infertility and AIDS.

About 80 children in Daramba have been infected with whooping cough. The village also has recorded two cases of polio this year.

The six childhood killer diseases – whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, polio, tetanus and tuberculosis – claim hundreds of thousands of lives in Nigeria every year.

Last week, the controversy over the safety of the vaccines also prompted a suspension of the national immunisation programme in three Muslim states in the north of the country – Zamfara, Kano and Kaduna. It is feared that this will further affect the government and UN agencies’ efforts to eradicate polio by the end of the year.

Ahmed, who is also a member of the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria, declared earlier this year that the vaccines being administered to children contained anti-fertility agents. He called for their suspension until they were fully investigated by competent authorities, and found to be safe.

“The World Health Organisation has been actively involved for more than 20 years in the development of anti-fertility vaccines using HCG, tied to tetanus toxoid as a carrier,” he alleged. HCG stands for Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, which is a naturally occurring hormone essential for maintaining pregnancy in women.

His theory is shared by Abdul Hakeem, chair of the Lagos State chapter of the Movement for Islamic Culture and Awareness. Although Islam is not against immunisation, Hakeem says, there are concerns in the Muslim community that it is being used for an alleged plot by the United States to reduce the population of developing countries.

”We live in a society where anything goes. We read about how HIV/AIDS was transmitted through vaccination. Muslims are concerned about the actions of the United States on Muslim countries across the world. Muslims fear what the United States can do with such vaccines,” Hakeem told IPS.

Muslims make up 1.2 billion of the world’s population. In Nigeria, they account for one-half of the country’s population.

Zamfara state, where the Islamic legal system known as shariah is practiced, has set up a committee to verify the authenticity of the claims about vaccines. But, until investigations are completed – and the committee’s findings made known – the state government is unlikely to lift the suspension.

According to health officials, Ahmed’s campaign may lead to a resurgence of some childhood killer diseases in Nigeria.

Tom Mshindi of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has assured Nigerians that the vaccine, used in many countries, has been a tremendous success. Describing Ahmed’s claim as baseless, Mshindi said UNICEF was willing to work with any agency or group that wished to carry out a test on the polio vaccine.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also responded to Ahmed’s Allegations. “These same vaccines are administered in other countries where campaign exercises are going on. The controversy over the vaccines is unnecessary because no responsible organisation will toy with the lives of human beings, especially children,” says Austine Oghide of the WHO office in Nigeria.

Brandao Co, team leader of UNICEF’s Expanded Programme on Immunisation, called the controversy an unnecessary distraction, while diseases continued to resurface.

“Within Nigeria, states that were hitherto polio free – Plateau, Taraba and Lagos – have now been re-infected. The continued circulation of wild poliovirus in the country puts the children of the West African sub-region and the continent of Africa at risk. It makes Nigeria not only the last country to eradicate polio, but also has long-term implications of seriously undermining the development efforts in the country,” Co said in a statement made available to IPS.

UNICEF says the northern state of Kano, with 75 cases, has become the epicentre of polio globally. Kano has reportedly exported the virus to Nigeria’s neighbours, with Ghana recording six cases, Niger and Togo one case each, and Burkina Faso two cases this year. Ghana had been polio-free since 2001, Togo since 2000 and Burkina Faso since 2001.

However, not all Muslims are against the immunisation exercise. The Democratic Support Initiative, a non-governmental organisation run by a Muslim, has called on the Zamfara government to rescind its decision to suspend the vaccination exercise.

Jamilu Mustapha, coordinator of the group, said immunisation exercises had been very successful in the south of the country. “If since 1950 there has been no record of any health hazards in the south, there is no reason why people should raise any alarm now. There is nothing wrong with the vaccine, as it has been certified to be safe by the World Health Organisation (and) the Federal Ministry of Health,” he said.

Between 1999 and 2002 the government of Nigeria spent about 133 million dollars on the programme to combat the six childhood killer diseases. This year alone, another 47 million dollars has been provided by the government.

Polio is an infectious viral disease which affects the central nervous system and leads to paralysis and death. It mostly affects children.

By the late 1980’s, Nigeria had managed to immunise about 85 percent of its children. This figure has since dropped. Today, the West African country remains one of a handful in the world which still have cases of polio.

Nigeria, with a population of 120 million, has recorded 200 cases of polio this year.

“Polio cases have come down dramatically from 30,000 in 1988 in 125 countries to less than 2,000 last year in six countries. Only three countries in the world, Nigeria, India and Pakistan remain as the last reservoirs of the Wild Poliovirus. India and Pakistan have significantly improved but in Nigeria, the situation is worsening since the last two years,” says UNICEF.

Elsewhere in the north, the government has mobilised traditional rulers and religious leaders for active participation in the national immunisation programme. Last week, the Emir of Gwandu – Mustapha Jokolo, the second in the hierarchy of the Islamic leadership in Nigeria – personally administered the vaccines to some children, to debunk the claim that they are not safe. He also wished to show that Ahmed’s campaign was not based on religious grounds.

The 2003 State of the World’s Children report shows that 25 percent of Nigerian children under the age of one were immunised against polio, 54 percent against tuberculosis, 26 percent against diphtheria and 40 percent against measles in 2001.

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