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Origins of Vaccine Hesitancy: The 1996 Pfizer Drug Trials in Nigeria


Izza Choudhry

December 12, 2022

Vaccine hesitancy exists for many reasons, including religious views, personal beliefs, and fear. With certain populations, this fear may be justified. In Africa, . There is a combination of low rates of vaccination and high rates of vaccine hesitancy due to a perceived lack of safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. However, when studying the history of this continent and its experiences with Western medicine, some may argue they have good reason to question the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

When studying the origins of vaccine hesitancy, one may turn to the history of a certain population. In 1996, . Nations worldwide combined their efforts to aid Nigeria and treat those affected by meningitis. During this time, the U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer decided to test a new drug on this population suffering from an epidemic. The Food and Drug Administration approved this drug for meningitis treatment in adults, . Without any informed consent, Pfizer administered Trovan to approximately 200 children. Pfizer also did not inform parents that the administration of this drug was part of an experimental drug trial. Pfizer’s unethical and unsafe drug trials were administered in the same hospital as where Doctors Without Borders was stationed, where people were truly treating patients. Treatments proven safe and effective were available in the same vicinity, but the drug trials continued. Even when a child’s health was declining, the drug trial continued, and a proven drug was not given to improve the child’s health. . 11 children also died due to the drug.

These unethical drug trials led to distrust specifically from Muslim populations. , so many protesters claimed a Western country purposely targeted Nigeria due to the religion of its population. Campaigns such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) were met with Muslim-led boycotts in Nigeria, citing the Pfizer drug trials as the reason for their refusal to trust the Western countries that brought a polio vaccine. Unfortunately, these feelings of fear led to setbacks in global polio eradication, as Nigeria was one of the last countries declared polio-free in 2000. Now, a similar pattern repeats itself with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since only 26 years have passed since the Pfizer drug trials in Nigeria, many of the directly affected people are still alive. The children who suffered as a result of these unethical drug trials are still alive, as well as their parents. It is no surprise that these people are hesitant and afraid of another treatment from the United States. .

To improve people’s trust in the COVID-19 vaccine, and to reduce feelings of vaccine hesitancy, people’s fear must be properly acknowledged and understood. Victims of unethical drug trials often do not receive compensation or paid reparations in any way. These companies often , so the anger and fear they hold towards U.S. drug companies is reasonable. Even now, When people distrust vaccines due to personal experience, extra efforts in education must be implemented, while also validating past experiences and offering support. Perhaps if these people’s pain, anger, and trauma were acknowledged and understood, the distributors of the COVID-19 vaccine may gain the trust of those who have yet to receive the vaccine, and then increase vaccination rates.


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