Government blames polio vaccine boycott on Pfizer trials

[Nigeria] Mustapha Kabiru is three years old and crippled by polio - he has only partial use of his right leg. His father stopped the child from having a free polio vaccination after Muslim and political leaders in Kano, Northern Nigeria, said the vaccine
Mustapha Kabiru is three years old and crippled by polio - he has only partial use of his right leg (Sarah Simpson/IRIN)

The Nigerian authorities this week said a controversial 1996 drug trial by pharmaceutical company Pfizer was one of the main reasons why many people in northern Nigeria refused to allow health authorities to administer a polio vaccine to their children.

“The 2005-2006 rejection of polio vaccines by citizens of Kano State is a direct consequence of the 1996 actions [of Pfizer],” State Attorney-General Aliyu Umar said in papers filed at Kano High Court this week.

“The government is still expending huge sums on public enlightenment across Kano State in order to purge the prejudices and misgivings that have arisen from the conduct of the defendant [Pfizer],” he added.

Polio has spread across northern Nigeria and into neighbouring countries which had been polio free.

Kano State and the federal government of Nigeria are suing Pfizer, alleging that the company in 1996 illegally ran drug tests that caused the deaths of 11 children and deformities in several others.

The imams

In 2001 Muslim religious leaders mounted a campaign against government-backed polio immunisations, with resistance fuelled in part by the Pfizer case.

Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau suspended polio immunisation for 10 months in 2005. He was supported by religious leaders in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north, where suspicion of Western medicine is widespread.

Some of Nigeria's Muslim leaders alleged that the polio vaccine was laced with sterilising agents and the AIDS virus. They said it was a Western ploy to reduce the Muslim population.

Muslim leaders across northern Nigeria have welcomed the latest court actions against Pfizer, saying it vindicates their long-held view. “All we were trying to tell our people is to be wary of these [Westerners] who pretend they want to help us because they're actually killing us,” said Abdullahi Sadiq, the imam of a mosque in the Fagge District of Kano. “We're happy the government is finally seeing our point.”

Disagreement

Lawyers and health workers now disagree on the extent to which the Pfizer drug trials were linked to the polio vaccine boycott. “When [Governor] Shekerau suspended vaccination he didn't say at the time it was because of Pfizer but because they suspected it contained [harmful substances],” said a local health official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “To turn round and blame Pfizer now, I think is an afterthought.”

Governor Shekarau finally allowed the polio vaccines to resume in 2006 after independent tests were conducted. The vaccine he ordered was produced in Indonesia, a Muslim country.

Low uptake

Nigerian officials and international organisations involved in the global polio eradication programme have said more people in northern Nigeria are now accepting the vaccination, but some experts acknowledge that uptake is still low in several areas.

Currently six northern states - Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi and Jigawa - account for over 70 percent of all polio cases in Nigeria. The country also accounts for over 70 percent of all new polio cases worldwide.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the oral polio vaccine is safe and effective and saves hundreds of thousands of children from the crippling disease every year. The vaccine rarely has harmful effects, WHO says.

Legal action details

Nigeria's federal government is seeking US$7 billion, and the Kano State government over $2 billion, in suits against Pfizer for administering the experimental drug Trovan to children in Kano during a meningitis epidemic in April 1996.

Prosecutors have also filed criminal charges against the company and eight employees blamed for wrongly administering the drug.

Records show that 100 children received Trovan, while another 100 children in a control group were given the approved antibiotic Cetriaxone. Families of the children allege that those in the control group were deliberately given low doses.

Lawyers for the families say five children who received Trovan died while an unspecified number suffered physical disabilities including paralysis, deafness, slurred speech and loss of sight. Six of those who received Cetriaxone also died, they said.

Since the first case against Pfizer in 2000 the company has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In 2006 a US court dismissed a suit against Pfizer on behalf of the Nigerian children's families.

Pfizer insists the tests were conducted with the knowledge and approval of the relevant government authorities in Nigeria. The company has disputed claims that the drugs caused deaths and disabilities.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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