25 years on, rumour by US anti-contraceptive organisation still damages tetanus vaccine programmes

“Abortion drugs discovered in Bill Gates’ vaccines,” declares an image posted on Facebook. “Secret sterilisation program discovered in Africa.”

The image seems to be screenshot of a news article published in 2017.

It continues: “Unicef, the World Health Organization, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been accused of secretly sterilising millions of women in Africa by doctors in Kenya after abortion drugs were discovered in tetanus…”

When a Facebook user in Kenya recently posted the image it was shared at least 100 times.

But it’s just another version of an old rumour Africa Check debunked in May 2016 and busted again during Kenya’s 2017 elections. (Disclosure: In 2018 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding accounting for 18% of Africa Check income.)

“The sterilisation claim is more than 20 years old and has been repeatedly debunked by the World Health Organization and others ever since,” Vinayak Bhardwaj wrote for Africa Check in 2016.

But the rumour lives on online, and now it’s on Facebook.

Confusing contraceptive research with immunisation programmes

But where does it come from?

In 1994, researchers in India tried to develop a vaccine against unplanned pregnancy. The vaccine’s active ingredient was part of a hormone known as hCG, which has to be present in a woman’s body for her to fall pregnant.

The researchers coupled hCG to a protein similar to the tetanus toxin to make the vaccine. When a woman was given the vaccine, her immune system was activated to fight both the protein and the hCG hormone – effectively immunising her against pregnancy. The immunity could last up to two years.

But the contraceptive vaccine had nothing to do with the tetanus vaccine.

“There is no connection between tetanus immunisation programmes and this small clinical trial, carried out in India in 1994, and not sponsored, supported, nor executed by WHO,” says a 1995 academic article about the rumour.

But, it says, “in order to discredit the development” of a contraceptive vaccine, the Indian research was “erroneously” linked to tetanus immunisation programmes in other places in the world and “distorted to confuse people”.

Anti-contraception organisation starts rumour

The hormone hCG needs to be present for a woman to fall pregnant. Higher amounts of it indicate pregnancy, so it’s detected in pregnancy tests.

In 1994 Human Life International, an American organisation opposed to contraception, used the Indian research to demand that the US Congress investigate a vaccination programme continents away from India – in Mexico.

HLI claimed the anti-tetanus vaccine used in Mexico contained the hormone hCG, and would make women infertile.

In 1995 the World Health Organization dismissed the claim as “completely false and totally without any scientific basis”.

Testing tetanus vaccines for hCG hormone

But the rumour got legs when people who believed it started testing tetanus vaccines for hCG, as Africa Check’s Lee Mwiti explained in 2017.

In Kenya and elsewhere, pregnancy tests were used to check if the hormone was present in the tetanus vaccine, and the result was positive. Some people also presented the vaccine to a laboratory as human tissue.

After these tests were also positive for hCG, the rumour got wings. What the rumour-mongers did not know was that both methods were scientifically ill-equipped for testing vaccines.

WHO and Catholic doctors confirm vaccine is safe

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.

“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 when the issue resurfaced in Kenya.

In 2014 catholic bishops in Kenya raised fears about the vaccine but the WHO vouched for its safety.

“The organisation confirms that the tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccine is safe,” the WHO said. “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.”

And MaterCare International, an international group of Catholic obstetricians and gynaecologists, issued an official statement saying: “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.”

US fact-checking site Snopes has also comprehensively investigated the claim and found it to be false. – Dancan Bwire (19/02/2019)


 

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