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ANALYSIS: What could Kenya’s Odinga gain by dredging up an unfounded tetanus vaccine claim?

Calling it “one of the most callous human rights abuses committed against innocent girls and women in Kenya”, opposition leader Raila Odinga this week accused the government of deliberately sterilising women.

Odinga was referring to a national vaccination campaign against tetanus that started in 2013, but which has inspired conspiracy theories since the 1990s. Saying he had been approached by “concerned Kenyans”, Odinga did not make public the new information, only offering old, disputed proof to back up this allegation.

Jab protects newborns

The tetanus vaccine is given to girls and women between 15 and 49 to protect their babies against the infection, which is caused by bacteria. The disease is particularly common and serious in newborn babies and their mothers when the mothers are unprotected by the vaccine.

Unlike polio and smallpox, tetanus can only be eradicated through immunisation of children, mothers, other women of reproductive age and promotion of more hygienic deliveries and cord care practices,” Unicef spokesperson Lisa Kurbiel told Africa Check.

Worldwide, babies dying from neonatal tetanus dropped from 787,000 in 1988 to 34,019 in 2015 due to vaccination. Kenya is one of only 16 countries worldwide that have not yet eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus. The country loses one child daily to the disease, Kurbiel added.

Samples presented as human tissue, not vaccines

The gist of Odinga’s allegation - and that of many others before him - is that the tetanus vaccine is contaminated with a hormone (human chorionic gonadotrophin or hCG), of which very high levels pose a risk to pregnancy.

Back in 2014, the Catholic Church said it had tested samples of the tetanus vaccine at five laboratories including those of Lancet Kenya, the University of Nairobi and the Nairobi Hospital. Six of its nine vials had been found to contain the hormone, it said.

Based on this, they urged their congregations to boycott the vaccine. Over 20% of Kenyans are Catholics.

At the time, two of the labs said their test findings were misinterpreted, because the samples were presented to them as human tissue, not vaccines.

“Had we been informed from the very beginning, we would have advised them on alternative labs to take the tests to for accurate results and even interpreted the data correctly,” Lancet chief executive Dr Ahmed Kalebi said back then.

The Lancet findings had again been misquoted by Odinga, he told the Business Daily on 12 September 2017. The man who then headed Nairobi Hospital’s pathology department, Dr Andrew Gachii, also told the same publication that the samples taken to the hospital were contaminated and the methodology used was wrong

When this was pointed out to Odinga’s team, spokesman Dennis Onyango said they had mentioned the test results only as “a chronology of events”.

Some samples sent to Germany

Given the 2014/15 controversy, parliament’s health committee asked for joint tests of the vaccine by a team comprising the Kenyan health ministry, academics and representatives from the church. AgriQ-Quest was the laboratory agreed on by the parties.

AgriQ-Quest retested some of the church’s vials and - according to the church - also found that three of nine vials presented to it contained the hormone. On its part, none of the 50 vials offered by the health ministry tested positive.

Some samples were sent to a laboratory in Germany, but the church did not get access to those results as the joint committee was dissolved, Jacinta Mutegi, national executive secretary of the Catholic health commission, told Africa Check.

The Kenya Pharmacy and Poisons Board told Africa Check that those samples tested in Germany returned negative. "The samples that tested positive from AgriQ-Quest were the vials [that] were open," Jacinta Wasike, inspections and enforcement director at the state drug agency said. "You cannot conclude that the vaccine [was] laced with [the hormone] considering the state of the samples."

The agency said that the closed samples from the same batch that were tested by the laboratory tested negative.

AgriQ-Quest’s report not made available

Africa Check sought a copy of AgriQ-Quest’s findings, but has not been able to do so yet, despite Odinga promising to distribute it.

The laboratory identifies itself on Facebook as a joint venture between Dutch and Kenyan labs, but maintains a spotty web presence. In 2012, it was accredited by the Kenya National Accreditation Service.

However, in January 2017 it was reported that AgriQ-Quest’s licence had been suspended after it failed a standards audit. The state certification agency told Africa Check that accreditation was not mandatory, but voluntary and market-driven.

Church: ‘We have nothing new’

The Catholic Church stands by AgriQ-Quest’s January 2015 tests on the samples they supplied, it told Africa Check this week.

“Apart from what was already done and shared in 2014/15, we have nothing new,” Mutegi said, adding that it was Odinga who had recent information. She further referred us to their final position that no more campaigns should be carried out.

However, two more campaigns took place in 2016 and 2017, Kenya’s ministry of health said in a statement on 12 September 2017, insisting that the church had been party to giving these “a clean bill of health”. According to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey, 76% of Kenyan women of reproductive age received the tetanus vaccine in 2014.

(Note: When the Vatican got involved in the 1990s, laboratory tests were conducted in six labs around the world – including one chosen by the Vatican – and no trace of the hCG hormone was found.)

MaterCare International, an international group of Catholic obstetricians and gynaecologists, perhaps presented the obvious in an official statement on the Kenya matter: “If tetanus toxoid vaccines given to millions of women in many countries was capable of causing infertility there would by now be ample demographic data to confirm this. We know of no such data.”

‘Vaccine-suspicious leader benefits by appearing concerned’

What could Odinga gain by dredging up an unfounded tetanus vaccine claim? Perhaps the benefit of Catholic votes as he gears up for a fresh contest for the presidency, after a court annulled the August vote.

When Africa Check looked at the origins of the tetanus rumour before, a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine researcher said that - without generalising for the region - “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,” Dr William Schulz, who researches the managing the communication of health programmes, said.

“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.

“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.”

Additional reporting by Alphonce Shiundu


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