“50 African Children Paralyzed After Receiving Bill Gates-Backed Meningitis Vaccine” reads the worrying headline of a January 2013 article on the website ZazenLife.
Although published more than seven years ago, the article has caught people’s attention again – it has been viewed more than a million times since March 2020.
This may be because the Covid-19 pandemic has spurred conspiracy theories about vaccination and billionaire businessman Bill Gates. Africa Check has fact-checked several of these false claims.
But is it true that 50 African children were left paralysed by a vaccine funded by Gates in 2012? We investigated.
What vaccine was this?
The Meningitis Vaccine Project, or MVP, was a “product development partnership between WHO and Path, an international non-profit organisation”, according to the World Health Organization, or WHO. “The project was set up in 2001 with core funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”
The Gates Foundation was established by US tech billionaire Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. It says it works to “reduce the burden of infectious disease and the leading causes of child mortality in developing countries”, improve the “delivery of high-impact health products and services to the world’s poorest communities” and help countries “expand access to health coverage”.
MVP developed the MenAfriVac vaccine, which was administered across sub-Saharan Africa. The project is broadly considered a great success.
From 2010 to 2015, 255 million people in Africa's meningitis belt received MenAfriVac. “Cases of meningitis A fell from over 250,000 during an outbreak in 1996 to just 80 confirmed cases in 2015,” it was reported at the MVP’s final conference in 2016.
A study published in the journal the Lancet in September 2013 found that after a 2011 round of vaccinations in Chad, meningitis rates decreased by roughly 94% in vaccinated regions of the country compared to regions without vaccination.
Where did the claim come from?
The ZazenLife article claims that 50 “youths” from the village of Gouro in northern Chad fell ill and became paralysed after receiving MenAfriVac.
The article quotes a cousin of two of the victims who said Chadian authorities were “more concerned with covering up the dangers of MenAfricaVac than protecting villagers from harm”.
The ZazenLife article doesn’t give a date for this event, but links to “the full story” on the website Natural News. This in turn quotes an article on VacTruth, an anti-vaccine website, as its source.
The Vactruth article says there were “at least 40” paralysed children, and that the “vaccination tragedy” occurred on 20 December 2012. It includes a link to an article in the Chadian newspaper La Voix, written in French.
At the time, there was coverage of “the unusual reactions recorded during the vaccination campaign against meningitis between 11 and 15 December 2012 at Gouro”, as Chad’s Ministry of Public Health put it in a 21 January 2013 statement.
Labelling for vaccine changed
The ZazenLife and other articles claim that the Gates Foundation, the WHO and the Meningitis Vaccine Project “have openly lied about the safety of the vaccine by repeatedly claiming it can be transported without refrigeration”.
They say the vaccine’s “package insert clearly states that it must be stored refrigerated and protected from light”. But as Path announced in 2012, MenAfriVac was found to be safe for storage under less restrictive conditions.
MenAfriVac was approved for storage and transport in “a controlled temperature chain”, allowing the vaccine to be safely exposed to “temperatures of up to 40°C for up to four days”. A Path publication explains how the temperature was maintained during the project, to ensure no vaccines were used if they had been exposed to higher temperatures.
A 2014 study on the benefits of using a controlled temperature chain noted: “The original label for MenAfriVac stated that the vaccine should be kept between 2 and 8°C at all times.” This was in order to comply with vaccine safety standards at the time the vaccine was produced.
An updated package insert, available on the WHO website, lists new safety standards.
What happened in Gouro, Chad?
In December 2012, a number of children fell ill in Gouro after a vaccination drive. At the time, Chad had already vaccinated 7.2 million people with MenAfriVac, according to a 2015 evaluation of MVP in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
A local journalist wrote about the ill children. This led to a chain reaction, according to the Clinical Infectious Diseases article: “Within 24 hours the story was reposted by an online national news channel, and a few days later the information made headlines in Chadian print and online media. The story was subsequently picked up by European and US antivaccination activists, who accused MVP and partners of deliberately committing genocide among Africa’s poorest and most fragile populations.”
The ZazenLife, Natural News and Vactruth articles are examples of this. They were published soon after the incident, and before official findings had been published or widely publicised.
It is worth noting that Natural News has been described as “one of the largest brokers of far-right conspiracy theories, including disinformation about vaccines”. It was suspended from Facebook in 2019 after sharing disproven conspiracy theories on the platform. It had already been removed from YouTube and Twitter.
But what actually happened to the vaccinated children? According to the 2015 evaluation, the incident was a case of “mass psychogenic illness”. Psychogenic means that the causes were mental or emotional rather than physical.
The evaluation found that “all cases were examined by physicians, who did not find cases of paralysis, and all of the affected individuals recovered without incident”. The symptoms were triggered in part by “the occurrence of crises among other patients”, and even an unvaccinated child complained of similar illness.
Chad’s Ministry of Public Health said the “mass psychogenic phenomenon” was also known as “collective hysteria” or “collective obsessive behaviour”.
Experts had found, it said, that “all the different medical examinations performed on the patients were normal”. Not only did physicians find no cases of paralysis, but all the children recovered.
The Lancet study on meningitis vaccinations in Chad referred to the effect of the Gouro incident: “Coverage in the last phase of the vaccination campaign fell after reports of adverse events after vaccination, concerns that were subsequently shown to be unfounded.”
No long-term paralysis, no direct link between vaccine and illness
A number of Chadian children did fall ill after being vaccinated with MenAfriVac. One child who was not vaccinated showed the same symptoms.
MenAfriVac was developed with funding from the Gates Foundation.
But the evidence indicates that the children did not fall ill because something was wrong with the vaccine. It was stored and transported at safe temperatures. Millions of Africans had already been vaccinated by December 2012 without developing any of the same symptoms.
There is no evidence that the vaccine directly caused the children’s illness. They were not permanently paralysed. And there is no link between the refrigeration of the vaccine and the events in Gouro. – Keegan Leech
For publishers: what to do if your post is rated false
A fact-checker has rated your Facebook or Instagram post as “false”, “altered”, “partly false” or “missing context”. This could have serious consequences. What do you do?
Click on our guide for the steps you should follow.Publishers guide
Africa Check teams up with Facebook
Africa Check is a partner in Meta's third-party fact-checking programme to help stop the spread of false information on social media.
The content we rate as “false” will be downgraded on Facebook and Instagram. This means fewer people will see it.
You can also help identify false information on Facebook. This guide explains how.