Vinayak Bhardwaj ANALYSIS: Why does an old, false claim about tetanus vaccine safety refuse to die?

An old rumour that a tetanus vaccine causing infertility in women is resurfacing, this time in West Africa. Vinayak Bhardwaj explains - as many others have over the last 20 years - why this claim is false and why it’s important to keep debunking it.

Under the guise of tetanus vaccination, the Unicef and World Health Organisation is supposedly conducting a “mass sterilisation exercise” in Kenya.

Or so a French content aggregator of health information, Sante Nutrition, recently “revealed”.

The article is actually a translation of a 2014 report on another website called LifeSiteNews. This Canadian “pro-life news” website said that the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association “found an antigen that causes miscarriages in a vaccine being administered to 2.3 million girls and women by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Priests throughout Kenya reportedly are advising their congregations to refuse the vaccine.”

Stories from Sante Nutrition are often republished by websites in the West African region and shared on Facebook.

But the sterilisation claim is more than 20 years old and has been repeatedly debunked by World Health Organisation (WHO) and others ever since.

From 787,000 babies dying to 49,000

Tetanus is a bacterial disease that causes muscles to painfully tighten. When it affects the jaw, people battle to breathe and can die.

It is completely preventable through immunisation, using a vaccine containing inactivated tetanus toxin, known as the tetanus toxoid vaccine (or TT vaccine).

Anyone stepping on a rusty nail would receive this but it is particularly useful in preventing tetanus among newborn babies, who are at risk when unsterile instruments are used to cut their umbilical cord.

When the unborn child’s mother is immunised at least twice through her pregnancy, she passes on her tetanus immunity to the baby. Five doses of the vaccine protect her (and her future children) for life.

Back in 1988, an estimated 787,000 babies died worldwide of tetanus. The latest available WHO data shows that the death toll has dropped to approximately 49,000 in 2013, thanks to the immunisation programme.

Ironically, West African countries like Senegal, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, has managed to eliminate neonatal tetanus. Yet babies in Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria – and Kenya – still remain at risk.

How the rumour started back in ’94

The first campaigns against the tetanus vaccine were based on a misunderstanding of a scientific study in India in 1994 that tested a birth control treatment.

The study’s active ingredient was a subunit of a hormone necessary for pregnancy to happen and that is also produced in large amounts throughout pregnancy. It is called human chorionic gonadotrophin, or hCG for short. Home pregnancy tests show up positive when this hormone is present in a women’s urine.

For the Indian trial, researchers used a protein similar to the tetanus toxin as a carrier for the hCG. This would then cause the woman’s immune system to eliminate hCG to prevent pregnancy. The process was reversible, though.

An American anti-abortion organisation, claiming support from the Vatican, used this information to call for a congressional investigation into Mexico’s tetanus vaccination programme. Human Life International claimed that the tetanus vaccine being administered contained hCG which would leave women infertile.

The organisation questioned repeated vaccinations, why women were targeted and why women of childbearing age were “being treated as nothing more than uninformed, unwitting, unconsenting guinea pigs”.

But the WHO said there was “no connection” between their tetanus vaccine programmes and the Indian trial, which was “not sponsored, supported, nor executed” by them.

(Note: In Africa, the origin of tetanus vaccine skepticism appears to be a Catholic mission hospital in the southern part of Tanzania. The hospital’s medical director read about the tetanus vaccine rumours and shared it at a regional meeting in 1994.)

‘Rumours totally without any scientific basis’ – WHO

After the rumours spread, some people used home pregnancy kits to detect for hCG in the tetanus vaccine. This method is inappropriate, as it is designed for use on urine or blood serum, not vaccines.

Nonetheless, because of this, low levels of hCG-like activity was detected in the vaccines. But when proper lab tests were conducted on the vaccines in six laboratories around the world – including a lab chosen by the Vatican – no hCG was found.

The WHO then said in a statement: “These rumours are completely false and totally without any scientific basis”.

When the rumour resurfaced in Kenya in 2014 the WHO again issued a statement saying that the tetanus vaccine is safe: “The vaccine has been used in 52 countries, to immunise 130 million women to protect them and their newborn babies from tetanus. There is no hCG hormone in tetanus toxoid vaccines.”

So what’s triggering the rehashing of refuted claims?

Dr Heidi Larson – who previously headed UNICEF’s Global Communication for Immunization and is currently based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – focuses on managing risks and rumours about health programmes and technologies, particularly vaccines.

Facts alone won’t stop the rumour from resurfacing, she told Africa Check. Larson pointed out that the bishops probably felt excluded when the Catholic Church were not represented on a couple of health ministry committees, as they claimed in a press statement.

A researcher on managing the communication of health programmes at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr William Schulz, said that while it is dangerous to generalise about an entire region like Africa “there is good evidence that ‘sterility stories’ have a lot of resonance with the general public in many African countries”.

“Furthermore, these controversies tend to thrive when the vaccination programme is organised or supported by a former colonialist nation that left a lot of long-lasting unpleasant memories. Under these circumstances, a public leader who promotes suspicion about the vaccine benefits politically, since they are in a way demonstrating their independence from outside influence,” he added.

“Finally, a vaccine-suspicious leader benefits by appearing to be concerned for the welfare of the public, even if they turn out to be wrong in the end.”

Why we must – and Africa Check will – keep debunking rumours

However, promoting suspicion of vaccines for whatever reason can have severe consequences. This happened in Nigeria in 2003, when the country was on the brink of eradicating polio.

In that year, a group of religious and political leaders in northern Nigeria advised their followers against having their children vaccinated against polio. They claimed that the vaccine would make them infertile as part of a Western-led plot to reduce the population in the Muslim world.

Tests on the vaccines showed the claims were baseless. But the media still reported the claims without checking and, by the time they were withdrawn, the damage had been done. Polio surged from 202 cases in 2002 to 1,122 cases in 2006.

The episode planted the first seed of Africa Check in the mind of our founder, Peter Cunliffe-Jones. “It’s a very practical example of the failure of us as journalists to carry out our fuller, proper duties of not simply reporting what people say, but looking into them,” he said.

And that’s why Africa Check will continue looking into and debunking dangerous rumours.


Additional reading Is a Kenyan tetanus vaccine campaign really a secret sterilization effort?

Vaccines for women for preventing neonatal tetanus (Review)

Performance and potency of tetanus toxoid: implications for eliminating neonatal tetanus

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Comment on this report

Comments 10
  1. By Liz Ditz

    the blog Rational Catholic also covered this non-story:

    “That said, there are some reasons that I am very skeptical that what has been claimed by the bishops in Africa has happened, or even could happen. Looking at the claims made, only a few options seem possible.”

    “One of the labs which tested the tetanus vaccine has come out saying that they were never told that the sample they tested was pharmaceutical instead of a human sample and that the results detected a low level of “HCG like activity” which nonetheless is not HCG.”

    Reply Report comment
  2. By mike stevens

    So who to believe…. some catholic priests who believe in a magic sky god, miracles like changing water into wine and resurrection of dead bodies, or the international scientists who work for WHO trying to improve global health…?
    ..Gee that’s a tough one.

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Bea Pea

    Well what a conundrum. He said, she said and they all have reasons to not tell the truth. WHO is so entrenched with the Big Pharma vaccine machine that I don’t trust them either. But the article talks about tetanus from umbilical cord cutting which makes no sense. Are they cutting the cord with something that’s been buried underground in manure in an anaerobic environment?. What did they use to use in the outback and before tetanus vaccine? Wouldn’t it be easier to provide them with proper cord clamping or educate them on this rather than vaccinating the continent? Given the lies fraud, coverup and conflicts of interest regarding vaccines going on in the United States for greed and profit then any entity pushing them on people anywhere in the world is highly suspect. Get these people clean water and sanitation. That’s where the money should be spent.

    Reply Report comment
  4. By Gotolwiyo

    I appreciate the various reasons for doubting the intent for vaccination. However, most of of the objections to vaccination are not based on evidence. Many young women all over the world have been vaccinated many years ago. Even in Kenya where the rumor of sterilization started, at least five years has elapsed. After all these years, many of the vaccinated women must have conceived. If the allegation of sterilization were true, there should have been a surge of miscarriages. Yet, there is no such evidence. If anything there is a reduction in such preventable diseases as measles, tetanus and polio.

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Sally Garrett

    It’s doing the rounds yet again
    This was sent to me today
    We are being told that vaccines will save us and the possibility our liberty will be sanctioned unless we comply.
    We should remain vigilant in protection of our rights and always seek the truth. There are likely to be hidden agendas behind any form of fear based control. Look beyond the smokescreen✨

    ***ROBERT F KENNEDY JR posted this on Instagram today:

    “Vaccines, for Bill Gates, are a strategic philanthropy that feed his many vaccine-related businesses (including Microsoft’s ambition to control a global vac ID enterprise) and give him dictatorial control over global health policy—the spear tip of corporate neo-imperialism.

    Gates’ obsession with vaccines seems fueled by a messianic conviction that he is ordained to save the world with technology and a god-like willingness to experiment with the lives of lesser humans.

    Promising to eradicate Polio with $1.2 billion, Gates took control of India ‘s National Advisory Board (NAB) and mandated 50 polio vaccines (up from 5) to every child before age 5. Indian doctors blame the Gates campaign for a devastating vaccine-strain polio epidemic that paralyzed 496,000 children between 2000 and 2017. In 2017, the Indian Government dialed back Gates’ vaccine regimen and evicted Gates and his cronies from the NAB. Polio paralysis rates dropped precipitously. In 2017, the World Health Organization reluctantly admitted that the global polio explosion is predominantly vaccine strain, meaning it is coming from Gates’ Vaccine Program. The most frightening epidemics in Congo, the Philippines, and Afghanistan are all linked to Gates’ vaccines. By 2018, ¾ of global polio cases were from Gates’ vaccines.

    In 2014, the Gates Foundation funded tests of experimental HPV vaccines, developed by GSK and Merck, on 23,000 young girls in remote Indian provinces. Approximately 1,200 suffered severe side effects, including autoimmune and fertility disorders. Seven died. Indian government investigations charged that Gates funded researchers committed pervasive ethical violations: pressuring vulnerable village girls into the trial, bullying parents, forging consent forms, and refusing medical care to the injured girls. The case is now in the country’s Supreme Court.

    In 2010, the Gates Foundation funded a trial of a GSK’s experimental malaria vaccine, killing 151 African infants and causing serious adverse effects including paralysis, seizure, and febrile convulsions to 1,048 of the 5,049 children.

    During Gates 2002 MenAfriVac Campaign in Sub-Saharan Africa, Gates operatives forcibly vaccinated thousands of African children against meningitis. Between 50-500 children developed paralysis. South African newspapers complained, “We are guinea pigs for drug makers”

    Nelson Mandela’s formar Senior Economist, Professor Patrick Bond, describes Gates’ philantropic practises as “ruthless” and immoral”.

    In 2010, Gates committed $ 10 billion to the WHO promising to reduce population, in part, through new vaccines. A month later Gates told a Ted Talk that new vaccines “could reduce population”. In 2014, Kenya’s Catholic Doctors Association accused the WHO of chemically sterilizing millions of unwilling Kenyan women with a phony “tetanus” vaccine campaign.
    Independent labs found the sterility formula in every vaccine tested.

    After denying the charges, WHO finally admitted it had been developing the sterility vaccines for over a decade.

    Similar accusations came from Tanzania, Nicaragua, Mexico and the Philippines.

    A 2017 study (Morgensen et.Al.2017) showed that WHO’s popular DTP is killing more African than the disease it pretends to prevent. Vaccinated girls suffered 10x the death rate of unvaccinated children.
    Gates and the WHO refused to recall the lethal vaccine which WHO forces upon millions of African children annually.

    Global public health advocates around the world accuse Gates of – hijacking WHO’s agenda away from the projects that are proven to curb infectious diseases; clean water, hygiene, nutrition and economic development. They say he has diverted agency resources to serve his personal fetish – that good health only comes in a syringe.

    In addition to using his philantropy to control WHO, UNICEF, GAVI and PATH, Gates funds private pharmaceutical companies that manifacture vaccines, and a massive network of pharmaceutical -industry front groups that broadcast deceptive propaganda, develop fraudulent studies, conduct surveillance and psychological operations against vaccine hesitancy and use Gates’ power and money to silence dissent and coerce compliance.

    In this recent nonstop Pharmedia appearances, Gates appears gleeful that the Covid-19 crisis will give him the opportunity to force his third-world vaccine programs on American children.”

    ~Robert F Kennedy Jr

    Do your own research! Look beyond the mainstream narrative.
    Most IMPORTANT that you discern the intent of the person/s producing the info.

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Alan Green

    Who paid for this article?
    Would you deny Pfizer’s malicious vaccine trial in Nigeria? and the threats, court cases and fines?

    Reply Report comment
  7. By John

    Vinayak, the most important claim in your article has no source.
    “But when proper lab tests were conducted on the vaccines in six laboratories around the world – including a lab chosen by the Vatican – no hCG was found” – please provide the source or remove this conjecture

    Reply Report comment
  8. By skeptic

    I do not know who do I believe less. The WHO or the catholic church. That is seriously a tough question. That is like asking, who do you believe less, George Bush sr. or jr?

    Reply Report comment

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