Nigeria: How Pfizer Disaster Is Discouraging Some Kano Residents From Taking Covid-19 Vaccines

About 26 years after, the memory of the Pfizer disaster in Kano looms over the COVID-19 vaccine as some residents are sceptical of accepting any vaccine jab.

(This is the final part of a two-part series on COVID-19 vaccination in Kano State. Read the first part here).

In 1996, Nigeria experienced one of its worst meningitis outbreaks. Pfizer, a US pharmaceutical company, announced that it could help.

The pharmaceutical giant pledged to tackle the outbreak by testing the efficacy of its new antibiotic, ‘Trovan.’ The drug was tested on 200 young meningitis patients in Kano State, north-west Nigeria.

Barely a month later, 11 of the children that participated in the trial died of brain infections. Parents of other participants also reported disabilities among their children, majorly paralysis.

Although Pfizer had claimed the children died of meningitis and not as a result of the drug, investigations found the company guilty of conducting human trials without informed consent.

The incident led to a long legal battle involving Pfizer, the Kano State Government and the parents of the deceased. In 2009, an out-of-court settlement was reached for $75 million to the state government and $175,000 each to the families of four of the children.

While Pfizer may have moved on, the Kano government a bit richer and some families compensated, findings by PREMIUM TIMES show that the incident still leaves a bitter memory for some Kano residents and has even discouraged many from all kinds of vaccinations.

About 24 years after the incident, the world was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people died from the disease including over 3,000 in Nigeria. Vaccines were produced and distributed around the world. But some residents of Kano refused to take the vaccines because they remained sceptical since the Pfizer incident.

Some of these residents spoke to PREMIUM TIMES.

“Since that incident of paralysis and deaths of children, I can never trust any vaccines or medicine from Europe,” Abubakar Salisu said.

Mr Salisu, a resident of Gwagwarwa in Nasarawa LGA, told PREMIUM TIMES last month that he will never take the COVID-19 vaccine and cannot advise anyone to accept it.

He said some residents are of the opinion that Europeans are trying to initiate Africans with the vaccines.

“Our people believe the Europeans are on a mission to plant a device in our body through their vaccines,” he said.

Another resident, Aliyu Musa, who lives in Unguwa Uku in Tarauni Local Government Area, said some of the residents are yet to move on from the Pfizer incident that left many families devastated.

Mr Musa said many families were left with paralysed children as a result of the drug administered to them without the consent of their parents.

“I’m one of those yet to take the COVID-19 vaccine and it will remain like that. My family and I will not take the vaccine because we don’t trust the producers,” he said.

Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy, mostly driven by a history of medical experiments, especially in Africa, is a known phenomenon that poses threat to disease control.

Such hesitancy does not only apply to situations where vaccine uptake is low because of poor availability but also because of distrust and safety concerns.

“As long as it’s a vaccine or medicine from the westerners, I will not accept it. They can not be trusted,” a taxi driver in Kano who identified himself as Ahmed said.

Mr Ahmed said he feels personal anger because his family was directly affected by the Pfizer disaster.

When Nigeria received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines and commenced vaccination in March 2021, various health experts warned that hesitancy must be tackled if the country is to vaccinate a large percentage of its population.

Kano state’s Immunisation Officer, Shehu Abdullahi, said the government adopted various strategies to convince the people that the incident of 1996 is in no way related to COVID-19 vaccines.

Mr Abdullahi said this is a key message the government has continued to send across to the people.

He said there are still ongoing awareness programmes involving religious and traditional leaders to educate people on the importance of accepting the vaccines.

“Such leaders are usually vaccinated first in the presence of everyone to encourage others to follow suit,” he said.

COVID-19 in Kano state

Kano, the most populous state in Northern Nigeria, has recorded over 5,000 cases of COVID-19. Out of this, 127 persons have died, data from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) shows.

However, despite the hesitancy of some residents like Mr Salisu, Kano ranks in the top five Nigerian states in COVID-19 vaccination, largely due to residents’ religious interests.

The state has fully vaccinated about 7.7 million people against the virus and over 3 million are partially vaccinated, according to data published by the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA).

About 1.3 million people have also received the booster dose of vaccines, placing Kano as one of the five top-performing states in the country.

The Deputy State Immunisation Officer (DSIO) in the state, Auwalu Idris, told PREMIUM TIMES that over 70 per cent of the targeted population have taken at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Mr Idris said the increase in vaccination rates was achieved through various strategies, including the incorporation of vaccination in strategic places like shopping malls, markets and religious gatherings.

However, for the state to vaccinate the remaining of its population, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy amongst others must be addressed.

Tackling Misinformation

Zainab Ghali, a community health worker at the vaccination centre in Tukuntawa, Kano Municipal Local Government Area, said some individuals visit the centre to share their worries and rumours spreading about the vaccines.

Ms Ghali said as a vaccinator, she allays their fears by encouraging them to take the vaccine to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there about vaccines. Some persons even say the virus does not exist despite deaths recorded in different parts of the world,” she said.

Saliu Musa, a COVID-19 vaccinator at Unguwa Uku PHC in the Tarauni area of the state, said although false information about the vaccine has reduced in recent times, more awareness is still needed.

Mr Musa said more persons are now willing to take the jabs as compared to the numbers at the onset of the COVID-19 vaccination.

He said initially, only one or two persons visit the centre in a day. “But since the beginning of this year, we vaccinate 15-30 people on some days, and other days we vaccinate about 10 persons.”

He explained that mothers who present their children for routine immunisation also use the opportunity to take their COVID-19 jab.

“So the establishment of vaccination centres in health facilities has also improved uptake,” he said.

The Executive Secretary of Kano State’s primary health care management board, Tijjani Hussaini, said the state employs the use of social media, the academia amongst others to ensure people understand the importance of taking the vaccine.

Mr Hussaini said this was effective as most of the false information is spread through social media outlets.

“At the onset of the pandemic, some fallacies like one dying after taking the vaccines, becoming a magnet amongst others were going around,” he said. “We engaged medical experts, social media influencers and others to debunk rumours about the vaccines.”

The official said some of these efforts yielded positive results and also led to an increased vaccination rate in the state.

However, the state will have to do more to convince Messrs Musa, Salisu and others who still suffer vaccine hesitancy, largely due to the Pfizer experience.

(This is the final part of a two-part series on COVID-19 vaccination in Kano State. Read the first part here.

The production of the stories is supported by the Centre for Democracy and Development).

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