Warning: There is a distressing image in this article of a newborn with tetanus.

The Roman Catholic Church is responsible for the agony and death of millions of those infected with HIV/AIDS in Africa because they forbade their adherents from using condoms. As is so often the case with religion, women and children suffered disproportionately. Now they have found a new way to kill women and children, and the reasoning behind it lies in a bizarre conspiracy theory, which seems to be gathering momentum. There are even otherwise reliable sites supporting the idea.

Kenya is one of 28 countries around the world where tetanus is still a major issue. Their government has a plan, developed in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations, to wipe it out by 2015. They have been making progress, but Maternal and Neo-natal Tetanus (MNT) is proving particularly difficult to combat in rural areas as women so often give birth in unhygienic circumstances. The Kenyan Ministry of Health says five hundred babies have died of tetanus in the last year.

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Tetanus Prevalence 2013 Source: Wikipedia

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Newborn with arching back – typical of generalized Tetanus Source: dxline.info

According to WHO, MNT is responsible for 110,000 deaths across Africa annually. It’s caused by toxins released by Clostridium tetani bacteria which enter the body via broken skin. In newborns, more often than not that’s through a freshly cut umbilical cord in unhygienic conditions. There is no cure and in most cases the baby will die in agony within seven days. MNT is completely preventable via vaccination.

Therefore the Kenyan government has developed a campaign to target women aged 14-49 years, particularly focused on the rural areas where the disease is most common. The vaccinations themselves are being provided by WHO. The Assistant Director of Kenyan Medical Services, Collins Tabu, stated on BBC World’s Focus on Africa that the same vaccine had been used since program’s inception 5 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church though is opposing this. They insist the vaccine is actually a plot to sterilize women, and is telling women not to have the vaccine. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Church runs many health clinics in Kenya, especially in rural and poor areas, where the disease is most prevalent.

The Church says they have obtained some of the vaccine and had it tested. They say these tests confirm the vaccine is laced with beta-HCG. HCG is a pregnancy hormone and if it was in fact included in the vaccine it would cause vaccinated women to be effectively sterile. UNICEF and WHO have rejected the claims  in a joint statement. In regard to the tests, they state they are invalid as there is no confirmation of what was actually tested and the hospital laboratories that carried out the tests are not equipped to analyze vaccines. Although it’s not specifically stated, my assumption from the wording of the WHO/UNICEF statement is that what was tested is a blood sample from someone who has been vaccinated, not the vaccine itself.

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Kenyan Director of Medical Services Dr Nicholas Muraguri administers a tetanus vaccine to community health worker Beatrice Njeri Source: Kenyan Ministry of Health

A UNICEF doctor in Kenya and specialist in child health, Peter Okoth, stated on Focus on Africa that the UN and government are prepared to cooperate with the Church to have the vaccines analyzed in a suitably equipped laboratory. “Let’s work together to address this very serious issue of neo-natal tetanus… We want to reassure the public or health professionals that evidence is available, that [the] tetanus vaccine is safe,” he said. Dr Okoth has said many times that the vaccine is safe, including for pregnant women. It seems to me the situation might have evolved because of the Ministry’s initial refusal to have the vaccine tested. I suspect they thought it was a stupid request, but perhaps if they had humoured the Catholic Doctors’ Association, this all may have been avoided.

The Kenyan Catholic Doctors’ Association seems to have gone past the point of no return though. Focus on Africa’s Sophie Ikneye interviewed their Chair Dr Stephen Karanja on 12 November:

Ikneye: What is wrong with the vaccine doctor?
Karanja: The vaccine that is being given is both undesirable and unnecessary and is linked with beta-HCG hormones that affects women in the long term. That is what is wrong with it.
Ikneye: That is what you say is wrong with it. The government says there’s nothing wrong with the vaccine, the United Nations says there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the vaccine. What’s your proof?
Karanja: I don’t need one. That is the wrong question of asking: “What is the proof?” The United Nations has no business ever talking about fertility-regulating vaccines which itself it has developed, funded and in fact owned from 1972. When they talk about safety of a compound they produced to injure women, they have no right to do that. Number two. Fact. Number one. They used the same vaccine to injure women in three countries outside Africa. That is Mexico, Nicaragua and [the] Philippines. While the head organization has been sending UN cannot deny that.
Ikneye: Let me come in here doctor, because we are discussing this particular vaccine and this has happened in Kenya, and these are very grave allegations that you are making as a charge. You have done your own independent tests. The government is asking why did you not use government laboratories … so that you may prove them wrong, that this vaccine is actually damaging women?
Karanja: The government must for the first time, not government, the Ministry of Health, and staffers in that office, must realize that they cannot lie to people all the time. The Catholic Church went to the Ministry in March this year and requested, indeed pleaded with them, to have the vaccine tested together, the government and the Church, so we can know it is safe for the people and they blatantly refused. Why would they refuse if they have nothing to find, if they have nothing to hide? And after refusing to check them, how did they know it was safe? I think that sometimes when things are serious, everybody must speak the truth.

It has been reported that the Kenya’s Coastal province, which has the highest prevalence of MNT, had a turnout of only 38% during the initial vaccination period. The government’s target was 90%, and it is thought that the misinformation spread by the Church is the reason for the low numbers. It is completely ridiculous that Kenya would want 90% of its women to be sterilized. Almost completely stopping births for at least a generation is not what the Kenyan government, in collusion with UNICEF and WHO, are trying to do. They are trying to improve the health and welfare of their population. I suspect there may be a personality conflict between some members of the Ministry of Health and the Kenyan Catholic Doctors’ Association, but this whole situation is causing babies to die in agony. I wonder how many there have been since this dispute started earlier this year? Once again the Roman Catholic Church’s obsession with enforcing doctrine over the welfare of people is causing real suffering.