Tetanus vaccine row comes back to haunt Kenya

By Gatonye Gathura

The 2014 spat between the Catholic Bishops and State over the safety of tetanus vaccine for women is back with possible deadly health consequences.

Last week presidential candidate Raila Odinga, like the Catholics, claimed the vaccine had been raced with an antifertility hormone and has sterilized thousands of local girls and women.

Before Odinga’s claims on Monday, the last official public communication on the matter was made by the Church on 14th January 2015.

The statement signed by all Catholic bishops led by John Cardinal Njue, Chairman, Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops insisted the vaccine had been contaminated and called for its discontinuation.

The statement had come four days after the two parties had disagreed on what should have been the final and decisive lab results carried out under a joint committee brokered by Parliament.

These decisive results were scheduled for presentation to the public at a press conference at the University of Nairobi, on January 10th 2015.

This however did not happen because for one the government side boycotted the event and secondly the Church had only a preliminary report from only one of several local and foreign laboratories both parties had claimed to have engaged.

Co-chair to the joint committee Dr Stephen Karanja for the bishops said they were releasing the preliminary reports from a local laboratory which he declined to name.

He promised that the final results including findings from the other participating foreign laboratories, which he also did not name would be announced later.

Two months earlier the Ministry of Health had assured Kenyans that the two parties had agreed to have the tests done at several reputable facilities locally and abroad.

“As we speak the samples are being airlifted to the United Kingdom and South Africa while additional tests are going on at the Kenya Medical Research Institute,” Mr James Macharia the then Cabinet Secretary for Health had on 30th  November 2014 told the Standard.

Mr Macharia, then on official business to Bangkok, Thailand said on telephone interview that they had agreed on the modalities of testing procedures with the Catholic Church.

“We want this to be a totally open and transparent procedure to put the controversy to rest,” he said.

Today, almost three years later these results have never been released; in fact no evidence has ever been made public to show that any samples have ever been sent anywhere further than Nairobi’s Industrial Area.

The results presented by Dr Karanja on 10th January 2015 had been done at AgriQ Quest Kenya Ltd, a firm based at Plessey House along Mombasa Road which specializes on agricultural laboratory services.

AgriQ Quest capacity came into doubt in January (2017) when the Kenya Accreditation Service (Kenas) suspended it license on claims it had failed to meet the required laboratory operational standards.

A routine random audit at AgriQ in December 2016, by the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (Ilac) and Kenas indicated the firm lacked laboratory capability to competently service its clients.

In a report appearing in Business Daily, the company’s CEO, Fredrick Muthuri, had confirmed that the license had been suspended.

AgriQ Quest came into the tetanus issue after previous tests sponsored by the Catholic bishops at Lancet Kenya, the University of Nairobi and Nairobi Hospital and which Mr Odinga cited in his claims had been disputed by the Ministry of Health and UN experts.

A joint statement by the WHO and UNICEF said the vaccine needed to be done “in a suitable” laboratory through the appropriate methodology.

Explaining why, the joint tetanus committee may have failed to engage with reputable facilities abroad, sources within international medical procurement says this is not surprising.

“Most of these are accredited by the WHO and are doing big business with UN and donor groups to Africa, hence are unlikely to bite the feeding hand,” said the source who requested anonymity.

But there are indications that the Ministry of Health and the Church may have been consulting behind closed doors, away from the public glare.

“Subsequent consultative meetings between the ministry and representatives of the Catholic Church have given the vaccine a clean bill of health,” Dr Mailu said in response to Odinga’s allegations.

Mailu warned that such allegations could have serious consequences on public health. For example, a study carried out by the Ministry of Health and the WHO to assess the impact of the 2015 call by the Catholic bishops for a polio vaccine boycott showed worrying trends.

The study: Did the call for boycott by the Catholic bishops affect the polio vaccination coverage in Kenya in 2015, appears in the WHO sponsored Pan African Medical Journal on 7th June 2016.

It was authored by among others the current Director of Medical Services Dr Jackson Kioko and his predecessor Dr Nicholas Muraguri,

The study concluded that the bishops’ call had not been successful but had caused a slight and worrying drop in polio coverage in 2015 especially in areas with high Catholic populations.

Of children who missed the polio vaccine in 2015, the survey showed, 12 per cent had been denied participation by their parents and guardians for various reasons.

“Though this was a small proportion, it had increased significantly from six per cent in November 2014 and it therefore means that the call for boycott had negatively influenced a number of parents not to accept vaccination of their children,” says the exit survey.

In April a medical team from Kerugoya County Referral Hospital and Kirinyaga University, published new data showing fear of side effects associated with vaccines is one of the biggest barriers to child immunization in Nyeri, an area where the Catholic Church has strong influence.

The report published in the IOSR Journal of Nursing and Health Science showed almost a third of study participants in Nyeri County associated vaccines with possible serious side effects.

“Most of those in fear, 55.5 per cent were from Mukurweini Sub-County and who feared the vaccines was mixed with drugs that would make children impotent when they grew up,” says the report.

Kenya has been listed alongside Somalia, South Sudan and Afghanistan as the top four countries in the world with the highest number of deaths from tetanus in the last 25 years.

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