Nigerians’ History Of Weaving Conspiracy Theories Around Vaccines

Olakunle Mohammed

The world’s history of public health cannot be complete without the mention of vaccination. Vaccination has become a huge aspect of public health as it helps to fortify the human ‘immune systems’ against mild or deadly diseases and viruses that plague the earth such as Measles, Poliomyelitis, Yellow Fever, Flu influenza, Smallpox, Ebola, recently COVID-19, among others.

Vaccination is the administration of a vaccine to help the immune system develop protection from disease. Vaccines contain a dead or weakened version of microbes but these [weakened or dead microbe] help your immune system recognize and destroy the living microbe when you get an infection.

The administration of vaccines or undergoing immunization by humans against deadly or infectious diseases dates back hundreds of years. Buddhist monks drank snake venom to confer immunity to snakebite and variolation (smearing of a skin tear with cowpox to confer immunity to smallpox) was practiced in 17th century China.

Englishman, Edward Jenner is acknowledged as the founder of vaccinology in the West. This was after he inoculated a 13-year-old boy with vaccinia virus (cowpox), and demonstrated immunity to smallpox in 1796. In 1798, the first smallpox vaccine was developed.

Africa’s virus infection history is well-documented in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, detailing the mistrust for colonial masters by Africans as the virus was imported to virtually all colonial territories via the seaports used by the colonialists. This distrust which is deeply rooted in years of colonial rule led to various conspiracy theories about deadly diseases and viruses as well as attempts at vaccination and immunization, some of which are still prevalent to date.

History of Conspiracy theories on Vaccines in Nigeria

Poliomyelitis

Poliomyelitis affects mainly children under the age of five, causing irreversible paralysis in one out of two hundred people and could be prevented through regular vaccinations.

World countries and international organizations made a pact to eradicate Poliomyelitis, this move started officially in 1988 with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) championed by the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF. This came after the successful eradication of smallpox in 1980 and the goal was to rid the world of polio by 2000.

In line with the aims of the GPEI, African leaders in 1996 launched the ‘Kick Polio Out of Africa’ campaign, spearheaded by Nelson Mandela. Polio was rampant in 41 African countries and the goal was to vaccinate fifty million children in the same year, 1996.

By 2002, most countries – including several states in southern Nigeria – were declared free of the disease. Banking on this feat, the GPEI launched what it hoped would be the final onslaught on polio by mid-October 2003, with a plan to immunize more than 15 million children in west and central Africa.

The GPEI had particular concerns about the high prevalence of polio in Nigeria, which accounted for 45% of polio cases worldwide and 80% of cases reported from the African region in 2003.

However, when the sensitization and campaign began in Nigeria to ensure 100% immunization of citizens, including healthy ones, it was met with resistance by officials of three states in the north – Kano, Kaduna, and Zamfara – as they refused to allow the vaccine to be administered in their territories.

In July 2003, two very influential Islamic groups, the Supreme Council for Shari’ah in Nigeria (SCSN) and the Kaduna State Council of Imams and Ulama, announced that the vaccine contained anti-fertility substances and was part of a Western conspiracy to reduce the population of the developing world. They also argued that the vaccine could be contaminated with HIV / AIDS and cancerous agents.

Datti Ahmed, a Kano-based physician who heads a prominent Muslim group, the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria (SCSN), is quoted as saying that polio vaccines were ‘corrupted and tainted by evildoers from America and their Western allies.’

Ahmed said further that: ‘We believe that modern-day Hitlers have deliberately adulterated the oral polio vaccines with anti-fertility drugs and viruses which are known to cause HIV and AIDS’.

The medical community was divided over the safety of the vaccine as the test conducted by a Muslim scientist at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria said it was safe but the one conducted on the vaccine in India, sponsored by an independent Islamic group reported that it had contaminants that could cause infertility.

Still, Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) was banned in Northern states including Kano, citing its contamination by sterilizing substances. This ban created uproar and fear in other Africa countries and several previously declared polio-free were reinfected.

Surprisingly, the public in Southern and Northern Nigeria continued to receive the cerebrospinal meningitis vaccine. However, the revolt against OPV and its ban last till mid-2004, when children began to die in these Northern states.

COVID-19 Vaccine
In 2020, when Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), popularly referred to as COVID-19 ravaged world systems, info-dermic became another virus to combat within several communities.

Nigeria, for instance, weaved through conspiracy theories such as Coronavirus being caused by 5G; network; tagging the virus ‘a white man’s disease’ developed in a lab; Bill Gates sponsored the development of the virus and released it in order to control the world population; the federal government increasing COVID-19 cases to scare Nigerians; the federal and state government using COVID-19 to siphon funds from federal coffers; COVID-19 is not real in Nigeria; among other conspiracy theories on the virus. Also, there were unproven and un-verifiable medications to either boost your immune system or prevent your immune system from contracting the virus.

However, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine by leading pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna has commenced and Nigeria is expected to receive 100,000 doses of vaccine before the end of January 2021.

The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF) said about 40 million Nigerians would be vaccinated when the country receives the first batch of vaccines. But, the public trust and conspiracy theories around COVID-19 in Nigeria are still prevalent.

Concurrently, Nigeria is awash with conspiracy theories on the COVID-19 vaccine such as COVID-19 vaccine is a conspiracy to dominate the masses; COVID-19 vaccine will contain a tracking microchip that will be injected in the individuals to track their movement and activities; Remdesivir COVID-19 vaccine was made to experiment on Africans; COVID-19 vaccine alters human genetic information and DNA; among others.

The interconnectedness of world-systems has made these theories circulate across countries, using social media platforms, most prominent within Nigerian circles are Facebook groups and WhatsApp broadcast messages.

Social impacts

These conspiracy theories which stem from deep cultural values and religious leanings have wrecked more havoc on Nigeria’s social system.


On February 8, 2013, gunmen opened fire at two clinics where vaccination workers had gathered, killing at least 10 people in Kano. Also, some Islamic clerics still speak out on how vaccines were part of a Western plot against Muslims. Beyond that, these conspiracy theories on polio vaccine contamination slowed down Nigeria’s journey to becoming a polio-free country.

Also, the conspiracy theories on COVID-19 being a hoax that was prominent in certain areas in Nigeria, led to community transmission of the virus within a short period, especially in Northern Nigeria as seen in daily cases reported by Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The prevalence of conspiracies also contributed to the second wave of the virus in Nigeria. Still, Nigerians are skeptical and theories about the vaccine and the intention behind it continue to abound. This could cause a strain on the already overburdened public health system of the country.

Measures taken by the government

Over time, the government has implemented certain policies to gain the trust of the citizens and public on the importance of vaccines and immunization for preventable diseases.

On poliomyelitis immunization, the government continued to promote community buy-in for every immunization exercise with community leaders in these areas. Also, they provided incentives to children getting immunized using candies and sachet milk. Beyond that, they created awareness on immunization exercises.

Recently, the government —federal and state— and its agencies and ministries like NCDC, NPHCDA, and health ministries have been at the forefront of sensitizing citizens about COVID-19, preventive measures, and hammering on the importance of getting vaccinated when these vaccines are available. These sensitization programmes are carried out online and offline.

However, the government needs to intensify community buy-in and engagement using traditional rulers and religious leaders to reach out to citizens, especially in Northern Nigeria as they are instrumental in getting the message across to their congregations and subjects.

Conclusion

The deep distrust is an age-long practice. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is real and killing people daily. This is perhaps the only convincing evidence to show Nigerians that they need to take this virus seriously and should get vaccinated when the opportunity presents itself.

Sources

A brief history of Vaccination

A Survey of Nigeria’s Conspiracy Response Theories on the COVID-19 Pandemic with its Effect on National Development

Cultural Perspectives on Vaccination

Familiarising Science: A Western Conspiracy And The Vaccination Revolt In Northern Nigeria

Lessons from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Africa

Nigeria’s Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC)

Nigerian govt debunks COVID-19 vaccines conspiracy theory

Nigerians may be unwilling to receive Covid vaccine –PTF

Vaccination Resistance, Religion and Attitude to Science in Nigeria

Vaccines, the CIA, and how the War on Terror helped spread polio in Nigeria

Image Credit: Al Arabiya, BBC, Guardian Nigeria, PLoS One, New York Times, Premium Times, Quartz, The Economist, UNICEF Nigeria, WHO Africa

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