Described as “an illegal trial of an unregistered drug,” a “clear case of exploitation of the ignorant,” and a “violation of Nigerian and international law,” the 1996 trial of Trovan by a pharmaceutical company – Pfizer Inc. – deployed some Nigerian kids in the ancient city of Kano as guinea pigs.
The devastating result led to long years of agitations and legal battles against the American pharmaceutical giant. There were accusations and counter-accusations among the ‘dramatis persona’ but the victims were already gone forever.
Today, 25 years after the ugly experience, the hurting memory is yet to be erased from the consciousness of an average Nigerian, and this seems to have continued to haunt even genuine efforts towards addressing some health concerns.
In Sokoto, a North-western state like Kano, the fears are that the latest victim could be from the ongoing vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as some residents who spoke to this reporter have declined to take the highly recommended jabs against the rampaging virus.
Hauwa Mohammed, pregnant with her fourth child, was one of the women seated at the antenatal unit of Mabera neighborhood community clinic.
At the mention of ‘coronavirus vaccine’ by this reporter, Mrs Mohammed sat up and began to voice her concerns, reiterating issues of trust and safety. Her voice was louder than that of the other women in the waiting room.
Speaking loquaciously in Hausa, her native language, she stares at this reporter suspiciously, probably thinking the reporter was there to administer the vaccine.
Mrs Mohammed said she “doesn’t trust anything coming from the west,” as she recounted what she described as the “inhuman killing of innocent children in Kano over meningitis treatment by Pfizer.”
She said; “Nobody in his right senses will trust that vaccine; they will always send bad medication to us because they believe we are plenty, so that they can wipe us out. They killed so many people in Kano that year.
“Yes, we agree the coronavirus exists, but I will never take anything coming from the whites as a solution. I will rather use traditional herbs.”
Similarly, in Gagi, a village in Sokoto south district, a large number of the women this reporter met were not willing to embrace the vaccine.
Zulihat Abdullahi is the women leader in the community, who, though, expressed concern that the virus has infiltrated communities in Sokoto State, but insisted she would not take the jab.
“We believe that the virus exists and people who have been infected have been healed with traditional medicine. Those who died were buried too. But I can assure you that our traditional medicine, which has been made from roots, is very effective in healing those infected by the virus,” Mrs Abbdullahi said.
She, however, cautioned that “if you don’t believe in this drug it will never work for you,” adding that “the drug is made from natural herbs and it’s very easy to make with little instruction.”
Speaking on the COVID-19 vaccine, the women leader said they were already overwhelmed by reports of many people who were said to have encountered problems after taking the vaccine.
Asked whether they attempted to confirm the authenticity of the reports, Mrs Abdullahi said the experience with meningitis in Kano State was enough evidence required to believe the rumour.
She said; “My sister from Damboa took me to a COVID-19 vaccine centre so that I would be vaccinated. I simply told her that I heard that a woman got vaccinated and she fainted.
“We learnt people were paying as much as N40,000 to be vaccinated but as for the centre that she took me to, it was free. I would rather use the money to set up a business than to pay to get a vaccine.”
She said she declined to take the jab despite her sister’s pleas.
Also speaking, Hauwa’u Umar, a young mother, noted that she was aware that the vaccine is useful but insisted she would not take it.
She said; “I believe that there is COVID-19 virus and I am among the people who were mobilised to enlighten people about it. But I don’t want the vaccine because I don’t know how my body would react to it. It may be useful but I don’t want it.”
She said the virus has heightened poverty among them, saying businesses were closed down and children were unable to go to school for a long time.
“A lot of people don’t want to be vaccinated because some are of the opinion that the vaccine prevents one from giving birth,” she added, and she also noted that; “Some say if you get vaccinated you would die but I don’t know how true it is but I don’t want to be vaccinated.”
Inno Ahmadu, like others, believes the virus exists but she has not been vaccinated. But her reason was quite different.
She agreed that she has heard a lot of misinformation about the vaccine but she said the misinformation was not the reason she was yet to be vaccinated.
“It is because of the fear I have for injections,” she said.
Mrs Ahmadu said she was unable to take part in the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 2020 due to the virus, and that she quite understands the severity of its scourge.
She, however, said if the jabs had been converted to tablets, maybe she would have taken it.
Like women, like men
Segun Ilori is a pharmacist working with a non-governmental organisation that manages procurement and supply chain in Sokoto State. But his medical expertise did not stop him from nursing fear about the coronavirus vaccine.
However, after much contemplation and hesitation, he took his first jab a few days after Nigeria rolled out its vaccination programme.
But as soon as he did this, he became a suspect among his colleagues. He was monitored even for attitudinal change, he told this reporter.
He said; “My colleagues would on a daily basis peep into my office mischievously to check if I was doing well. Some even teased me with different misinformation they have heard about the vaccine.
“They said they had expected me to start speaking in tongues, stagger in my walks or that I could have even turned to robots as they have seen in different skits on social media. But they were all disappointed.”
Weeks after noticing Mr Ilori’s stability after taking the vaccine, two of his colleagues went for their jabs. But according to him, others have insisted they would not take the jab “for fear of the unknown.”
Vaccination in Nigeria
The vaccines arrived in Nigeria in March, one year after the country’s index case was recorded in Lagos, the nation’s commercial hub.
The country received 3.94 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX facility in early March, and it commenced vaccinating willing citizens.
“In keeping with our promise, the PTF is prioritising the frontline healthcare workers in the first batch of vaccines received,” the chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, said, at the National flag-off of COVID-19 vaccination at the National hospital, Abuja.
Cyprian Ngong, a medical doctor at the hospital, became the first person to receive a jab in Nigeria.
So far, a total of 1,964,095 eligible Nigerians have been vaccinated with the first dose.
According to data from the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), the agency at the centre of the vaccine rollout plan for Nigeria, as of June 28, 2021, a total of 3,397,472 vaccine doses have been administered.
This is considerably low, going by the aim of the Nigerian government to vaccinate approximately 109 million people against the COVID-19 virus over a period of two years.
A good number of Nigerians have been deliberate in avoiding the vaccine. This may be attributed to rumours and conspiracy theories that have trailed the vaccine even before it got to Nigeria.
A lot of skits have been done suggesting how different people would react after taking the vaccine, from involuntary and unconscious bone movement, staggering walking movements, to speaking in tongues.
After reports of death and blood clots in people that have received the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, it was temporarily suspended. News of the vaccine causing death had been shared on social media.
Even after the World Health Organization had recommended that the vaccinations should continue as the benefits outweigh its risks, some were determined never to take the vaccine.
According to a Twitter poll carried out for this report to determine why people have not gone to take the vaccine, 32 per cent of the 964 people that voted under 24 hours said they do not trust the vaccine.
28 per cent said there are a lot of things yet to be known about the vaccine, 23 per cent fear the side effects while only 17 per cent are willing to get vaccinated but have not had time to go.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience(CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and Africa Uncensored.