The recent welcome party to herald the arrival of COVID 19 vaccines into Nigeria is like comic relief to its citizens. Funny, we never heard of any other country doing so and we hope protocols were observed as the entrance of a vaccine is not for people to throw caution to the wind. Nigerian citizens have in times past faced the harsh repercussions of drugs that had not undergone the 4 phases required for approval before it is used and so do not trust the government in this dispensation.
A trip down the memory lane saw Nigerians in the 90’s (1997 to be precise) battling a disease called Meningitis in Kano. It was an outbreak affecting children of this state in their numbers. Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company, got approval from the Ministry of Health to prescribe a drug called Trovan to the patients. A drug not approved by the United States of America neither was it ever used on children. An experimental drug, one would say. In two weeks, the company treated children with Trovan, giving the best beds to children that used this drug – an undue influence- parked up and left and in less than a month, the effects of the drugs began to manifest. Not fewer than 11 children died leaving many others maimed for life. An apology was all Pfizer could give after the Nigerian government threatened them. In all counts, Pfizer broke rules governing research or drug trials. Some of which are:
- a) Participation must be voluntary and not coerced or influenced.
- b) Participants should be informed on the risks and benefits of participation.
- c) Participants should be followed up to ensure there is no harm to the participants due to the experiment in the future.
- d) Benefits should outweigh risks.
- e) If it is discovered that there would be a great harm to the participants, the experiment or trial should be halted.
Another trip outside the shores of Africa brings to mind the Tuskegee study where some health professionals deceived 300 African American men to think they were receiving treatment for bad blood when rather they were used to understand the lifecycle of syphilis in human. Many died also and an apology letter was read by the American government about years later. Years ago, scientists took advantage of any moment to experiment on humans. Presently, the dance to the beat has not changed.
A few would argue that the pandemic had caused increase in morbidity and mortality rates all over the world justifying the fast production of COVID-19 vaccine as a quick intervention to curb its menace and reduce incidence rates which is in and of itself true as COVID 19 came with vicious hands, snatching both young and old, white and dark skinned, educated and illiterates. Yet, scientists would agree that the vaccine highly celebrated today is a trial vaccine. Anything could go wrong at anytime. Individuals taking this vaccine are as subjects or participants of a compulsory experiment caused by the pandemic. If this is right, then governments of all countries should adhere to the first Nuremberg code in research ethics: Participation in an experiment should be voluntary.
Therefore, COVID-19 vaccination should be optional and not forced on citizens. As with other vaccines, citizens should be encouraged to get themselves vaccinated by highlighting the prons and cons and not forced to be vaccinated. After all, we run a democratic nation with each citizen having human rights. Freedom to choose is one of them. Though the Ministry of Health and the overall health system in Nigeria has improved over the years, its mistake in 1997 has not been forgotten. The National Research Ethics Committee (NREC) failed to make findings on the type of drug brought in by Pfizer neither did they confirm its side effects before approval. Mandatory vaccination would only cause a revolution especially from the northern states that have been victims times without number of trial drugs and research. Nigerians stopped trusting the Ministry of Health then, they are yet to fully trust them now.
News of citizens of other countries being vaccinated is now aired daily as well as news of adverse effects of the vaccination in some other countries. With the influence of social media, citizens know the prons and cons and so can make informed decisions on whether to be vaccinated or not. The fear of COVID 19 infection may override the fear of vaccination in the long run. Like polio vaccine as with other vaccines, it takes awhile to be accepted by citizens and so while preventive measures are still being maintained, citizens would have ample time to process their decisions about vaccination.
Citizens that decide to be vaccinated should be followed up for a period as this would encourage others to get vaccinated. However, citizens willing to leave the shores of this country in this pandemic era will have to be vaccinated if it is a prerequisite to visit foreign countries. We have lost enough lives due to this pandemic, we need not to be careless about the precious few remaining.
Osanyinro Oluwaseun, a graduate of Microbiology and currently a master student of Public Health at the University of Ibadan runs a blog on WordPress deejemima.wordpress.com