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Vaccine Hesitancy in Nigeria: Once step forward, two steps backward

TFatima DAMAGUMhe year is 2003 and the race to eradicate Poliomyelitis globally is almost over. Many countries in the world have been declared polio free…

TFatima DAMAGUMhe year is 2003 and the race to eradicate Poliomyelitis globally is almost over. Many countries in the world have been declared polio free and Nigeria is doing its best to ensure proper immunization coverage.

Suddenly, the controversy over the administration of poliomyelitis vaccines in northern Nigeria takes a new dimension as traditional rulers from the region demand that the Nigerian government stop administering the vaccine because of fears that it is contaminated. Political and religious leaders call for a public boycott of the GPEI campaign.

Speaking under the aegis of Jama’atul Nasril Islam (JNI), the umbrella organisation of Muslims in northern Nigeria, the rulers said their advice was based on the report of a medical team sent to India by the Muslim organisation to test the vaccines. The report was said to confirm the fears that the vaccines were unsafe could cause infertility in the babies later in life.

According to Dr Haruna Kaita, the head of the medical team that conducted the test in India, the vaccines contain “undeclared contaminants that can cause malfunctioning of the testes and cause infertility in women.” The team also found “some toxic substances.”

“Polio controversy started long ago,” said Dr Kaita. “If you find one batch defective, you should condemn all batches. What these people [proponents of the vaccine] are saying is unethical, illegal, and criminal, and they know that these things are contaminated, and they have the potential to cause human hazards. They should be banned rather than cause diseases in innocent children.”

The Nigerian government in response, had to quickly send another medical delegation to South Africa to carry out tests on the vaccine. Professor Umaru Shehu who led the team, dismissed Dr Kaita’s claim and said the test at the University of Pretoria in South Africa corroborated earlier tests carried out on the vaccines in Nigeria, which found the vaccines to be safe and free of foreign substances. According to him “The best methods and equipment were used, and no such thing as Dr Kaita described were found in the vaccines,” he said.

In a study published by Jegede et al, five States in northern Nigeria accounted for 51% of all polio cases worldwide in 2006. And for this major reason, Nigeria still had cases of wild polio virus as at the year 2020.

Fast forward to the present.

In October last year, the Nigerian government announced that it would vaccinate close to 8 million girls with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine against the virus that causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer amongst women. According to WHO and UNICEF there were 12,000 cases and 8,000 fatalities reported in 2020, making it the second most common cause of cancer-related mortality among women aged 15 to 44 in Nigeria.

Of course, the nay-sayers had a fit. Another immunization? Targeted at young girls? Sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)? They want to kill our girls and render them infertile! Chai!!

One of these claims was made by the host of the Brekete family radio & TV show, Ahmed Isah, popularly known as Ordinary President during the live broadcast of the programme on Human Rights radio 101.1FM on October 25, 2023.

In the viral two-minute, 42-second footage on YouTube, he was addressing his audience in pidgin English telling them not to allow their daughters to be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine.

…say make una sign, dem wan give cervical cancer vaccine to una daughters, make una no agree, America never get cure for cancer, China never get, UK never get, make una no forget wetin happen for Kano wey Pfizer kill many children. When the matter go court dem present document wey Parents sign… their defense be say na with the consent of the parents. Na Bill and Melinda Gate foundation na dem dey push this thing now…people wey talk say our population too much.

Vaccine hesitancy did not start today. In fact, it did not even start in Nigeria.

The earliest antivaccination movement started in Britain when widespread smallpox vaccination began in the early 1800s, following Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments, in which he showed he could protect a child from smallpox if he infected him or her with lymph from a cowpox blister.

For some parents, the smallpox vaccination itself induced fear and protest. Some objectors, including the local clergy, believed the vaccine was “unchristian” because it came from an animal. For other anti-vaccinators, their discontent with the smallpox vaccine reflected their general distrust in medicine and in Jenner’s ideas about disease spread. Suspicious of the vaccine’s efficacy, some skeptics alleged that smallpox resulted from decaying matter in the atmosphere. Lastly, many people objected to vaccination because they believed it violated their personal liberty, a tension that worsened as the government developed mandatory vaccine policies.

Such demonstrations and general vaccine opposition lead to the development of a commission designed to study vaccination. In 1896, the commission ruled that vaccination protected against smallpox, but suggested removing penalties for failure to vaccinate. In simpler terms, the choice of whether or not to vaccinate lies with the person.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Remember the COVID vaccination arguments? Nothing new under the sun. The only flaw with this law is that those who refuse to vaccinate put other people at risk and hinder the ability to eradicate a disease.

There will always be some people who will push against something new. There will always be conspiracy theories centred around mistrust. When something is free and provided by the government- we instantly doubt it. But then, why don’t we doubt government handouts? Why do we gladly collect government money in forms of loans, grants and palliatives but shy away from medicine? Why do we not refuse to collect the food distributed by government as palliatives? Or the food given out be politicians during campaigns? O! You do not think they will poison us?

The HPV vaccine is here and has come to stay. The second phase of the roll-out is well underway and will target even more girls.

A study by the United States Centre for Disease Control stated that the vaccine has been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and it is  deemed safe and effective by the CDC.

In Nigeria, Zuliah Abdul-Azeez who specializes in Reproductive and Family Health at the Department of Health Promotion, University of Ilorin, Kwara state said the vaccine is safe and effective as there are over 160 studies demonstrating its safety.

“HPV vaccine is a product of scientific research that has been used for over 15 years in many developed and developing countries. Vaccinating a girl against cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine has been shown to be safe, effective and well tolerated, and one dose is protective against the cancer-causing HPV types,” she said.

The vaccine has been endorsed by both the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). Therefore, the claim that the HPV vaccine is harmful to young girls is FALSE, as the vaccine has been endorsed by relevant Nigerian health authorities and is considered safe for administration. Additionally, the claim that the HPV vaccine is being sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to depopulate Nigeria is FALSE, as it is being provided for free by the Federal Ministry of Health through the NPHCDA with support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WHO among other partners.

Although the time periods may have changed, the emotions and deep-rooted beliefs—whether philosophical, political, or religious—that underlie vaccine opposition have remained relatively consistent since Edward Jenner introduced vaccination. It is therefore imperative that we provide accurate and transparent information for Nigerians so that they can make informed decisions.


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