Africa will mark one year without polio on Tuesday. The last case was in Somalia in 2014.
But last week, a polio vaccination campaign in Kenya faced an unlikely opponent: The country's Conference of Catholic Bishops declared a boycott of the World Health Organization's vaccination campaign, saying they needed to "test" whether ingredients contain a derivative of estrogen. Dr. Wahome Ngare of the Kenyan Catholic Doctor's Association alleged that the presence of the female hormone could sterilize children.
Ngare is a practicing gynecologist with no infectious disease experience.
He raises the specter of eugenics — sterilizing segments of human populations. He put forth other objections as well: "There are all sorts of stories out there," he told me. "Vaccines can cause autism. Vaccines have been used for spread of HIV. There are some cancer-causing viruses that you'd find in vaccines. So there are lot of stories. Some of them we don't know whether they're true or not true."
His response: "We could debate this forever."
But Wahome is not, he insists, anti-vaccine. He administers vaccines to patients in his clinic. His children are vaccinated. "Regular immunizations are safe and they must continue," he says. "You must immunize your child."
In Kenya, vaccine suspicion has taken its own local strain, aimed less at vaccines themselves than at the international bodies, like the U.N. and WHO, that distribute them. The distrust has been fueled by WHO's decision to blanket Kenya with polio vaccines, well over and above routine injections, in an effort to boost population immunity. The idea is that some of the people reached by the campaign will have already been vaccinated, but some will not. The WHO says there's no harm in giving extra vaccines to children who are already vaccinated.
But Kenyans have concerns. Jacqueline Okaya, a freelance journalist who's pro-vaccine but not a Catholic, can't help but wonder.
"As a parent I was a bit worried why the number of immunizations keep coming all the time," she says. "Then you start doubting it."
For two hours this week I followed Dr. Sylvia Njugu of the Ministry of Health and her team, who were canvassing Nairobi with vaccine vials, countering doubts with friendly smiles — and scare tactics. Njugu says almost all of the parents who refused at first were convinced when she described polio's effect on the body.
"They get convinced and they allow us to do that," Njugu says.
You scare them a bit? I say.
She says, "Of course!" and laughs.
It must have been persuasive. Of the more than 1,500 children her team approached to vaccinate in five days, only a handful of parents finally said no.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Africa has been polio-free for the past year. The last case was found in Somalia in 2014. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, a polio vaccination campaign in Kenya last week faced an unlikely opponent. The country's Catholic bishops declared a boycott.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In a government clinic in central Nairobi, Tom Olida administers two drops of live polio vaccine to children under 5. It's a WHO polio vaccination campaign, one of several in the past year. Olida is a pharmacist for the Kenyan Ministry of Health. He's also a Catholic.
TOM OLIDA: I'm a Catholic, a serious one.
WARNER: You're a serious one.
WARNER: So what did your priest say?
OLIDA: OK, like, last Sunday I didn't go to church, but...
WARNER: 'Cause you were giving vaccines.
OLIDA: I was giving vaccines by then.
WARNER: But if he had been in the pews, he might have heard a sermon asserting that polio vaccines are sterilizing children. Some priests gave that sermon after the Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a boycott of the WHO campaign, saying they needed to test the ingredients in the vaccine, whether it contained a derivative of estrogen. Dr. Wahome Ngare of the Kenyan Catholic Doctor's Association alleged that the presence of the female hormone could sterilize children.
WAHOME NGARE: You know about the eugenics, the population control agenda that has been long-running in the United Nations?
WARNER: Ngare is a practicing gynecologist. He has no infectious disease experience, but he voices concerns familiar to Western anti-vaccine activists.
NGARE: There are all sorts of stories out there. Vaccines can cause autism. Vaccines have been used for spread of HIV, that there's some cancer-causing viruses that you'd find in vaccines. So there are a lot of stories. Some of them we don't even know whether they are true or not, isn't it? The question then...
WARNER: No, we know they're not true.
NGARE: Well, how do you know?
WARNER: But Wahome is also not your typical anti-vaccine activist. He administers vaccines to patients in his clinic, and his children are vaccinated.
NGARE: Regular immunizations are safe, and they must continue. You must immunize your child.
WARNER: The way he explains this seeming contradiction is that his mistrust is not in the vaccines themselves; it's in the international bodies that distribute them, like the United Nations and the WHO. Because when WHO does a countrywide vaccination campaign, teams going door to door don't know which child has their shots and who doesn't. Scientists say that those extra doses are safe, but parents can worry. Jacqueline Okaya is a freelance journalist, pro-vaccine and not a Catholic.
JACQUELINE OKAYA: As a parent, I was a bit worried why the number of immunizations is - keep coming all the time. Then you start doubting it.
WARNER: For two hours this week, I followed Dr. Sylvia Njugu of the Ministry of Health and her team, going door-to-door with vaccine vials, countering that doubt with friendly smiles and scare tactics. Njugu says almost all the parents who refused at first were convinced when she described polio's effect on the body.
SYLVIA NJUGU: They get convinced, and they allow us to to do that.
WARNER: I see, you scare them a little bit.
NJUGU: (Laughter) Of course.
WARNER: Of the more than 1,500 children that her team approached to vaccinate during the five-day campaign, more than 100 were held back at first by their parents. But the team was persuasive. Only a handful of those children went away from the encounter without the vaccine. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.