Kenyan Catholic Church battles government over polio vaccine

Vaccinations
by Moses Wasamu
Posted 8/04/15, 03:57 pm

NAIROBI, Kenya—The Catholic Church is once again at odds with the Kenyan government over a vaccine, this time for polio. Church leaders have demanded the government postpone its current polio vaccination campaign, a call officials have refused to heed. 

In a statement, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops Health Board (KCCB) advised parents to boycott the polio immunization campaign until the Church and the Ministry of Health can jointly sample and test the vaccine. 

The Church’s opposition is based solely on its exclusion from testing efforts before the campaign launched, a violation of a parliamentary committee directive after a dispute between the Church and the government last year.

“The church adopted the same strategy for all future vaccination campaigns, as it would be the best way to get assurance on safety and gain public confidence,” Church leaders said.

Last year, the Catholic Church caused a storm when it opposed a tetanus campaign backed by the government, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF. Then, it claimed the tetanus vaccine could cause sterility in women.

Church leaders say they conducted their own tests in April and found contamination in the polio vaccine the government intends to give children. But Dr. Stephen Karanja, the head of the Catholic Doctors Association admitted the Church has not shared the results of its tests with the government.

Karanja claims the polio vaccine is laced with a hormone that if injected into children will affect their growth and reproduction abilities.

But in a sharp rejoinder, Kenyan Director of Medical Services Dr. Nicholas Muraguri accused the Church of causing alarm and jeopardizing the health of millions of children. He insists the vaccine is safe and was tested as late as last week. He accuses the Church of using unqualified personnel to carry out its tests.

“I really want to reassure the public that whether we are talking about drugs, whether we are talking about vaccines, we have very elaborate systems for quality assurance. … We only procure [drugs and vaccines] from WHO pre-qualified factories,” he said.

The Catholic Church is a major player in Kenya’s health system, with an extensive network of health facilities that include 58 hospitals, 83 health centers, 311 dispensaries and 17 medical training institutions. And almost half of Kenyans—47 percent—are Catholic.

The WHO and UNICEF, which are partnering with the government in the polio vaccine campaign, have come out in support of the government, terming the Catholic Church stand alarmist. 

Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus that lives in the throat and intestinal tract. It is often spread through contact with the stool of an infected person. It can also be spread through oral or nasal secretions.

It mostly affects children under the age of five and can lead to paralysis or death. Its presence has been reported by WHO in Africa, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, with the latest cases recorded in Somalia, which borders Kenya.

Kenya’s Ministry of Health reported a case of polio in 2013 in north eastern Kenya, and the global polio eradication initiative has recommended two more rounds of polio vaccination in the country this year.

Despite Church opposition, the government kicked off the campaign Aug. 1. It is scheduled to end Aug. 5.

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