In the 1790s, England, like many other countries, was experiencing a wave of a smallpox epidemic. For every 10 smallpox cases, three to four were fatal. Those who survived had pitted scars on their skin and sores in the mouth and nose. On May 14, 1796, a physician, Edward Jenner, using the existing knowledge took fluid from a Cowpox blister from a milkmaid and scratched it into the skin of an eight-year-old garden boy.
On July 1, Dr Jenner inoculated the boy again, this time with the deadly smallpox matter, and no disease developed. This led to the development of the first-ever vaccine in 1798 and Jenner is considered the father of vaccinology. However, conspiracy theories around vaccination went rife immediately.
A conspiracy theory is a belief that secret but influential groups are responsible for an unexplained event. It may arise when people are faced with complex or frightening events, but they want a simple explanation. Its proponents feel like they are the only ones who understand what is going on. The theory is shared either innocently to enlighten others, but sometimes maliciously. A term like ‘Terminator gene’ may be misinterpreted and delivers misinformation.
The vaccination procedures in Jenner’s time involved making a series of deep cuts on the arm and doctor inserts matter from a previously vaccinated individual. Conspiracy theorists saw in it a process where a cult was out to make a ‘mark of the beast’. Undoubtedly, sepsis and gangrene were serious secondary infections that often followed the vaccination procedure, but never part of the covert scheme.
The 19th century saw vaccine objectors’ societies whose part of membership were dissenting physicians. Deliberate and exaggerated misinformation would be justified when the names of such doctors would be cited. In Canada, a renowned anti-vaccination crusader, Dr Alexander Ross, downplayed as a minor threat the 1885 smallpox epidemic at a time its mortality rate was 30 per cent to 40 per cent. He claimed smallpox vaccination would kill more people than the disease itself. Later, it was revealed that he was hampering vaccination, yet he had already taken it.
The 1918 Influenza virus outbreak in the US claimed four times more casualties than those lost in combat in World War 1. An influenza vaccine was introduced in military camps where the disease was spreading fast. A theory was crafted that some disloyal doctors together with enemy spies and sympathisers were inoculating soldiers with germs than with the correct vaccine. Some American residents of Mexican origin refused to take the emergency care as they viewed themselves as targets of malicious nurses
In 1998, a fraud involving Andrew Wakefield, a British physician claimed a link between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and Autism. The study caused a sharp decline in vaccination uptake, leading to some outbreaks of measles around the world.
In Kenya, conspiracy theories largely build around the depopulation of some groups through targeting the children, women or youths. Prominent people in society have largely propagated the theories. Sometimes these theorists allege to have potential alternatives but some forces appear to block them.
According to WHO, vaccines are categorised under the primary level of disease prevention through boosting of immunity. Viral diseases like measles and polio are thus managed. A group may suggest having alternative means of treatment and usually in the form of drugs than a vaccine. Whereas treatment would be welcome, it should be at the second level of disease prevention. Complications associated with viral infections should be avoided by preventing the disease than in its treatment. Covid-19 is associated with conditions such as Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC) that are too complex or expensive to manage even with the best of our treatment facilities.
Extermination theories surround the Covid-19 vaccine. It is not clear if the exterminating agent is the Covid-19 virus that is causing the disease or the vaccine that has been developed to control the disease. Thus far, its mortality and morbidity have been highest in the purported countries that would be interested in the extermination. What would be the logic? Why do these agents choose vaccines but not drugs that we get from them?
It is has been suggested that a Covid-19 vaccine is “leading to the formation of blood clots either in the blood vessels or in other body organs”. Undoubtedly, any agent associated with clots formation cannot be ignored. The available evidence has suggested that out of the 17 million administered doses of this particular vaccine, 37 cases of blood clot formation have been reported. None of the cases has been directly associated with the vaccine. Assuming they were, the risk of the formation of the clots would be two in one million.
The risk of having blood clots in other documented circumstances are 2 per cent to 9 per cent for a Covid-19 patient, one in 1,000 for travel by air for six hours and one in 10,000 among those who use contraceptives. Using current evidence, the Relative Risk (RR) - the ratio of the probability of an outcome in an exposed group (vaccine) to the probability of an outcome in an unexposed group would not be statistically significant.
Vaccine safety is the mainstay of vaccine development and testing, and thus far no evidence surrounding Covid-19 vaccine development suggests that any phase that was required was skipped, omitted or disregarded. Safety data sheets of vaccines disclose even the hazardous ingredients therein. Independent bodies such as the European Medicine Agency, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organisation and advise on vaccines within their jurisdiction. Our Health ministry, Kenya Medical Research Institute and Kenya Expanded Programme on Immunisation are sources of reliable information.
Significant gains to combat disease have been made through vaccination procedures. In 1988, the world reported 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries. A sustained vaccination campaign reduced the cases by 99 per cent to 1,352 cases in three countries only. Since the 1980s when the Expanded Programme on Immunisation embarked on an immunisation campaign, has there been any documented evidence that fecundity and fertility among those who were vaccinated have been affected in our societies?
No vaccine is 100 per cent protective and a vaccine can be temporarily halted or completely terminated. Viruses, like several other microorganisms, mutate, creating an obvious challenge in all vaccines and drugs development. It is always an area of further research. However, this does not deter one from occupying the conquered grounds.
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Dr Warutere and Dr Njogu are lecturers in the School of Public Health Kenyatta University