Suspicions drive polio-vaccine boycott in Nigeria
Isa Mohammed distrusts doctors, especially white foreign ones.
His suspicions, he says, stem from a 1996 drug study by American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in which his daughter, now partially disabled, took part.
It is that study that is driving a polio-vaccine boycott, now six months old, among northern Nigerian Muslims. United Nations health workers say polio is returning to eight surrounding African nations where it had been eradicated and is endangering international efforts to wipe out the crippling disease worldwide.
More than 30 Nigerian families are suing New York-based Pfizer, accusing it in a US court of failing to adequately inform them of the risks to their children if they took part in the drug study.
The company repeatedly has rejected allegations of wrongdoing in its study, which tested an experimental antibiotic on children suffering from meningitis. Pfizer says its doctors did a professional and ethical job, saving lives during the meningitis epidemic among the poor in Nigeria’s northern city of Kano.
“I can never allow my children to be vaccinated.
I don’t want them to be used as guinea pigs,” Mohammed, a 43-year-old mechanic, said recently, as an emergency polio vaccination campaign failed to break the boycott.
Pfizer treated 100 meningitis-infected children with an experimental antibiotic, Trovan. Another 100 children, control patients in the study, received an approved antibiotic, ceftriaxone—but the dose was lower than recommended, the families’ lawyers claim.
Up to 11 children in the study died, while others suffered physical disabilities and brain damage.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers claim at least some of the deaths were due to negligence, but say an exact tally will only be known once follow-up investigations take place after the case’s pre-trial hearings in Manhattan.
Pfizer says its records show none of the deaths were related to Trovan or to poor medical treatment.
Nigeria’s federal government has not released the results of a 2001 Health Ministry investigation into the case.
Lawyers for the children maintain the families were never told the drug was experimental, or that proven drugs were already readily available.
A US district judge in Manhattan is expected to rule this summer whether the United States is the right venue, said Elaine Kusel, a New York attorney representing the families.
Kusel and her associates have combined forces with lawyers who have brought parallel suits in Nigeria and the United States on behalf of other patients in the study.
Like other parents in the case, Mohammed claims Pfizer never informed his family that his three-year-old daughter, Hafsat, was taking part and possibly receiving an experimental drug.
Mohammed says Nigerian health investigators told him about the experiment only years afterward, long after Hafsat, now 11, suffered meningitis-related disabilities. She limps and is struggling to learn to read.
“I didn’t know anything. Nobody told us,” Mohammed says.
Pfizer insists its American doctors conducted the drug testing fairly and professionally and that verbal consent was obtained from each family.
The patients’ lawyers in the United States and Nigeria have alleged—and Pfizer has denied—that the control drug was given in lower-than-normal doses to skew results in favour of the experimental Trovan.
Trovan was effective in “about 90%” of the 100 patients who took the drug—a success rate comparable to the “gold-standard” ceftriaxone given to another 100, Pfizer spokesperson Bryant Haskins said by telephone from New York.
Trovan went on the US market in 1998, but reports of liver damage led the US Food and Drug Administration to recommend in 1999 that Trovan be used only for severely ill patients in institutions. Use on children has not been approved.
“Generally speaking, the clinical trials we conducted during this outbreak were effective in saving lives,” said Haskins.
Islamic leaders in Kano have seized on the controversy as evidence of a US-led conspiracy. Since October, rumours that polio vaccines spread Aids or infertility spurred Kano and another heavily Muslim state, Zamfara, to boycott a long-term campaign to vaccinate millions.
Kano state Governor Ibrahim Shekarau, a leader of the boycott, has insisted it wasn’t spurred by the Pfizer case. Other Muslim religious leaders openly link the two.
“Pfizer was the wake-up call for many of us,” says Nafiu Baba Ahmed, secretary-general of Nigeria’s Supreme Council for Shariah, or Islamic law, which initiated the boycott. “Our enemies are still up to nefarious tricks. We must protect our children at all costs.”
In the mainly Christian south the conspiracy rumours are widely dismissed, and some northern Muslims also ignore them.
Zainab Abdullahi says her two children took part in the Pfizer test and now have serious meningitis-related disabilities. She blames Pfizer but hasn’t lost faith in Western medicine.
“I will take them to any hospital anywhere, Nigeria or America,” Abdullahi said, “if that will make my children’s’ legs whole again”. - Sapa-AP