The unkillable Catholic vaccination conspiracy

'Neonatal tetanus is a disease, like so many diseases, of poverty'

After six months of investigations, equivocations, and allegations, the Kenyan bishops had at least reached their conclusion. “We shall not waver in calling upon all Kenyans to avoid the tetanus vaccination campaign,” they told their flock this month, “because we are convinced that it is indeed a disguised population control programme.”

After performing tests, the Church’s initial suspicions in late March had sadly been confirmed: a drive by the World Health Organisation to – so they said – vaccinate Kenyan women against neonatal tetanus was actually a covert attempt to sterilise them. For some, especially in Kenya’s Catholic community, the statement was explosive.

For others – particularly those who worked in public health in Mexico in 1993, in Nicaragua and the Philippines in 1994, and in Sri Lanka a decade after that – it was merely wearily familiar. The unkillable Catholic vaccination conspiracy had returned from the dead. If only the same could be said, alas, of the hundreds of children whose lives have ended because of it.

Neonatal tetanus is a disease, like so many diseases, of poverty. Extremely rare in the developed world, in the developing world it used to kill half a million babies a year. Born in unsanitary conditions, babies normally contract it through the cut umbilical cord. Once caught, mortality is far higher than in adults. Most babies generally die within a week – their jaws locked, their limbs convulsing in agony. In the late 1980s a global campaign was launched to eradicate it. But that campaign coincided with something else that came to the attention of pro-life groups – a minor scientific paper investigating the possibility of creating a contraceptive injection.

It is a peculiar fact of modern medicine that every vaccine has its own associated conspiracy theory – normally specific to one particular group of recipients. So among middle-class parents in Britain, MMR causes autism. Among Muslims of the border regions of Pakistan, the polio vaccine is a CIA plot. If you can find a vaccine, you can probably find a campaigner against it. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine even employs anthropologists to conduct research on the anatomy of a standard vaccine scare.

There is always a casus belli. For MMR it was a paper in a respected journal by a doctor. For polio it was the assassination of Osama bin Laden, whose location was in part identified by agents infiltrating the vaccination campaign. The result is that Bin Laden is dead, but so is a programme that was on the verge of eradicating a hideous disease.

For neonatal tetanus, the story is rather more convoluted. The contraceptive injection described in that paper used a chemical called human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone that is produced in pregnancy. It worked like a “vaccine” against pregnancy. The idea was that if hCG is given to a woman in large quantities before pregnancy, she will form an immune response against it. Then, when she subsequently gets pregnant, her immune system will attack the naturally produced hCG and cause an abortion. To get the vaccine into the body, the scientists first had to use what is known as a “carrier”. The carrier they chose: tetanus toxoid – coincidentally the key ingredient in the neonatal tetanus vaccine.

If the contraceptive vaccine could use elements of the tetanus vaccine, pro-life groups asked, could the reverse be true? Could the tetanus vaccine secretly be a contraceptive vaccine? Could the WHO, an organisation long reviled by some Catholics for its policies on population control, be planning to achieve its goals by covert means? As in Kenya today, vials of the vaccine were tested. As in Kenya, they came up positive for hCG.

As a consequence of the findings, vaccine uptake in the Philippines plummeted, and several hundred babies almost certainly died unnecessarily.

There is an easy way to rebut this. The Philippines remains fecund. Since that time 128 million women have been vaccinated and not a single one has been verified to have been sterilised. Neither has there been a single whistleblower from the WHO – if it is a conspiracy it is astonishingly good at keeping its conspirators in line and astonishingly bad at actually achieving its goal. But, by the by, it has been very good at its ostensible goal: neonatal tetanus deaths are a 10th of what they were.

None of these arguments could, of course, be made at the time in the Philippines. So the vaccine was re-analysed by independent laboratories, and the laboratories that had been contracted by the Church were contacted. It turns out the level of hCG was trace quantities at most. There was a high chance it wasn’t there at all. The laboratories themselves said that even if it was, it was at a 1000th the level that would cause sterility. The tests they had performed involved pouring the vials of vaccine on pregnancy testing kits, which look for hCG. But they are designed for urine, not vaccines. The same methodology was used on tap water and also came up positive.

Yet, as seen this month – 20 years later – it is far, far easier to start a vaccine conspiracy than to end it. After the Philippines scare, which eventually petered out, a paper in the Lancet found no rise in miscarriages, which should have been a consequence of any covert sterilisation. An analysis of birth rates found no fall in fertility.

And what of Kenya? A few weeks after the initial statement from the bishops, the full results have finally been released. It seems that the bishops, who always had those results, have – a charitable way to put it – overinterpreted them. As the Catholic News Agency put it, “reference levels given on the lab reports show that levels [of hCG] present in the vaccines are within ‘normal values’ for healthy men and women”. In other words, inject it and it will make no difference.

Nevertheless, confidence in a life-saving vaccine has been fatally undermined. And you can guarantee one thing: like a disease lying dormant the controversy will return.

What is needed is a campaign to vaccinate the world against vaccine scares. The anthropologists who study such controversies would group this as a Catholic scare, but it isn’t. Most Catholics are unaware of it, and many who are aware find it appalling. There are no doctrinal issues here. In this matter the voices of scientists are irrelevant – they can always be dismissed as WHO shills. It is only Catholic supporters of vaccination who can end this.

I have no doubt of the sincerity of everyone involved in this. I equally have no doubt – I am not going to dance around the subject – of the staggering ignorance of the Kenyan bishops involved.

You merely have to return to their initial statement on the matter, in March. There, they explained one of the primary reasons they were concerned about this vaccine. “Why does the campaign target women of 14-49 years? Why has the campaign left out young girls, boys and men?” Why indeed?

Well, and forgive me if I’m getting too technical, it is because young girls, boys and men don’t give birth. As far as I can tell, the bishops don’t even understand what neonatal tetanus is.

Tom Whipple is the science correspondent at The Times


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