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Old rumours resurface: The tetanus vaccine story

20 Nov, 2014
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Nearly two decades ago, on 19 July 1995, the World Health Organization issued a press release announcing that “Disturbing reports are reaching the World Health Organization (WHO) from Mexico, Nicaragua, Tanzania and the Philippines, that the tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccine has been contaminated with a substance – human chorionin gonadotrophin (hCG) – that is claimed to reduce women’s fertility.” (In interviews held with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), we learned that the rumours had additionally spread in Argentina and Bolivia.)

“These rumours are completely false and totally without any scientific basis” stressed the then Director of the WHO Global Programme for Vaccines and Immunization. The statement reported that the contents of the vaccine had been independently tested in Italy (in a lab chosen by the Vatican), Hungary, the Philippines, the United States, and The Netherlands and all were negative for the presence of hCG.

“False rumours concerning the safety and purpose of vaccines, such as the tetanus toxoid vaccine given to adult women, may create a loss of faith in these vaccines, result in lower immunization coverage and lead to a wholly unnecessary loss of life from the diseases they effectively and safely prevent, “ the 1995 press release concluded. 

Indeed, not only did the tetanus vaccine rumours affect tetanus vaccination coverage, it affected confidence in other vaccines. In the Philippines, Manila issued a temporary restraining order stopping the administration of tetanus vaccine, which coincided with National Immunisation Days for polio vaccination, and even polio vaccination acceptance dropped from over 90% to 35% due to the tetanus vaccine anxieties.

Earlier this year, in March, 2014, concerns about the tetanus vaccine again resurfaced in a press statement issued by the Catholic Bishops of Kenya, with different angles. “We the Catholic Bishops in Kenya are concerned about the following issues regarding the ongoing tetanus vaccination campaign: 1) There has not been adequate stakeholder engagement for consultation both in the preparation and implementation of the campaign. The Catholic Church has not been engaged unlike other public health initiatives where we have been invited to participate as a key stakeholder. 2) There has been limited public awareness unlike other national health initiatives that are preceded by a public launch where the public can ask questions. 3) Lack of public information on the rationale with a background that has informed the initiative.”

The Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops sought answers to the following questions: Is there a tetanus crisis among women of child-bearing age in Kenya? If this is so, why has it not been declared? Why does the campaign target women of 14 – 49 years? Why has the campaign left out young girls, boys and men even if they are all prone to tetanus? In the midst of so many life-threatening diseases in Kenya, why has tetanus been prioritised?

The Kenya Bishops did not get an adequate response to their concerns and continued their own investigations, coming across the old suspicions of sterilising elements in the vaccine and finally, on November 11, 2014, prompting Parliament to order a probe into the contents of the vaccine.

On 13 November 2014, the WHO and UNICEF offices in Kenya and WHO Headquarters issued similar statements to the one issued in June 1995. “The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nation’s Children ‘s Fund (UNICEF) express their deep concern about the misinformation circulating in the media on the quality of the Tetanus Toxoid (TT) Vaccine in Kenya.

“The allegations are that the tetanus vaccine used by the Government of Kenya and UN agencies is contaminated with a hormone (hCG) that can cause miscarriage and render some women sterile. These grave allegations are not backed up by evidence and risk negatively impacting national immunisation programmes for children and women.”   

The WHO HQ statement reiterated the Kenya country statement confirming that, ““WHO is concerned that misinformation circulating in the media about the Tetanus Toxoid vaccine could have a seriously negative impact on the health of women and children. The Organization confirms that the Tetanus Toxoid (TT) vaccine is safe. The vaccine has been used in 52 countries, to immunize 130 million women to protect them and their newborn babies from tetanus. There is no hCG hormone in tetanus toxoid vaccines.”

It seems though that facts (alone) will not solve this issue. It was, after all, the lack of engagement and a sense of being excluded that prompted the Bishops’ press statement eight months ago.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 20th, 2014 at 12:00 am and is filed under Blog.

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Literature Literature archive

Biswal . 2019 NEJM DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1903869
Piot P, Larson HJ, O'Brian KL, et al 2019 NATURE Vol. 575, pages119–129.
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