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Tetanus vaccine debate echoes ICC narrative

Friday November 14 2014

Catholic Health Commission chairman Bishop Paul Kariuki   (right) and his deputy, the Rev Joseph Mbatia, address journalists in Nairobi recently over the anti-tetanus vaccination, which the church has opposed. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Catholic Health Commission chairman Bishop Paul Kariuki (right) and his deputy, the Rev Joseph Mbatia, address journalists in Nairobi recently over the anti-tetanus vaccination, which the church has opposed. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Kenyans of all faiths and none have a good reason to be proud of the Catholic clergy.

Whatever one may think of the Church’s views on gender and family, the fierce commitment to justice and social inclusion of many Catholic priests and the laity cannot be called into question.

It is a commitment that is displayed regularly in this newspaper, through the writing of Fr Gabriel Dolan.

It was also exhibited on Thursday in the release of findings of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, on effects of devolution.

In his dissection of the ills of devolution, which it is claimed have encouraged corruption and exacerbated ethnic tensions, Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth personified all that is good about a clergy willing to engage with the wider public.

Okoth used his position to accuse national and local politicians of betraying the citizens of this country. His intervention belonged to a fine tradition of church leaders courageously speaking the truth to power.


That was not the only intervention in public debate this past week. Okoth’s counterpart on the Conference’s Health Committee, Bishop Paul Kariuki, made more of an impression on the public with his appearance before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

Despite the weight of global scientific opinion, Kariuki told MPs that the tetanus vaccination campaign is “a disguised population control programme”.

Such vaccine scares are common across the world. As historical studies of colonial India have demonstrated, campaigns against public health initiatives are as old as public health itself.

British writer Ben Goldacre has extensively documented that wealthy, well-educated societies are just as likely to witness such scares as poor ones. In Britain, in the 1990s, for instance, it was widely but erroneously believed that measles, mumps and rubella vaccination resulted in autism. In France, around the same time, many people fell for a mistaken claim that the hepatitis B vaccine was linked to multiple sclerosis.

Perhaps best known of all is the campaign originating in northern Nigeria against the polio vaccine that has defied attempts to rid the world of that disease. Some Nigerian religious leaders claimed that the vaccine was a US-led sterilisation campaign that was also intended to spread HIV among Muslims.


In these and other countless examples of campaigns against vaccines, the results have been the same: people have suffered and died from otherwise avoidable diseases because of misinformation. There is little reason to expect a different outcome in Kenya.

The World Health Organisation and Unicef are clear; the Catholic hierarchy is endangering the lives of women and children.

But it is too easy to demean those who object to vaccination programmes. After all, suspicion of massive State interventions in the daily lives of citizens is understandable in settings where State neglect is common, nor have State motives necessarily always been philanthropic.

Rather than ridiculing the Catholic Church for its stance against a vaccine that has been used across the world without controversy, what we should be asking is why such a scare story is gathering momentum in Kenya today.

Besides documenting the vaccine scares and exposing the myths behind them, Goldacre makes the interesting observation that they are culturally specific.


In other words, these scares are expressions of other uncertainties and fears at large in that setting.

There are several such possible explanations for the current scare. It surely must have some of its origins in a struggle for influence over public health between the Church, one of the dominant providers of health services over the past century, and the State.

Unease about the social effects of demographic change may also partially explain the fear. But the suggestion that the tetanus vaccine is part of a wider plot, in which the WHO and Unicef are implicated, has echoes of another strand of public debate.

Ever since the beginning of the International Criminal Court process, Kenyans have been subjected to absurd claims of nefarious foreign plots against its ruling class.

Such claims were recently repeated in President Kenyatta’s speech on Mashujaa Day. These groundless accusations provide the basis for renewed efforts to regulate the activities of NGOs.

Although the stance of the Church may be understandable when put into context, the clergy should think carefully about how far to pursue their campaign against the tetanus vaccination.

As ever more pressure is exerted against NGOs and other critics of the government, Kenyans need church leaders who are determined to speak out in defence of democracy and social justice to have credibility.

Prof Branch teaches history and politics at the University of Warwick