Are WHO and UNICEF secretly sterilizing Kenyan women with a tetanus vaccine? Maybe, but probably not.

Are WHO and UNICEF secretly sterilizing Kenyan women with a tetanus vaccine? Maybe, but probably not. November 14, 2014

Last week, the bishops of Kenya accused the WHO and UNICEF of secretly lacing a tetanus vaccine with a hormone intended to induce miscarriage and sterility in Kenyan women of childbearing age, in an effort to reduce the population. The bishops issued a press release, saying:

[W]e shall not waver in calling upon all Kenyans to avoid the tetanus vaccination campaign laced with Beta-HCG, because we are convinced that  it is indeed a disguised population control programme.

We do know that the WHO and UNICEF do not take seriously the bodily integrity of poor families, especially women. The West has a shameful history of exploiting third world populations in the name of humanitarian efforts. So the bishops’ allegations are understandable, and if they are true, this is a dreadful crime against humanity. But if the allegations are false, then spreading the story could have disastrous results. Neonatal tetanus brings a prolonged and agonizing death to tens of thousands of children every year. If Kenyans are afraid to vaccinate against tetanus, people will die needlessly.  That’s why I didn’t write about this story, even as it cropped up everywhere. All I could find  was the same facts and sources in every story, no new information. Now we have some new information, and there is more on the horizon. The story is far from settled, but there are strong reasons to suspect that the bishops’ allegations arise from a misunderstanding and there has been no sterilization campaign.  Catholic News Agency did an excellent job of reporting the story in a balanced way:

“There are aspects of this that need to be raising red flags because of history and because of the way it was all being done. But raising red flags doesn’t mean that there’s something that actually has occurred,” said Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University.

The red flags are primarily: (a) that the vaccination campaign targeted women of childbearing age, raising suspicions that the effort was tied to population control, and (b) that, when the vaccine was tested at the request of the Kenyan bishops, hCG was found. HCG, in high enough quantities, can induce miscarriage and sterilization. But these red flags can both be explained.

The WHO said that they decided to focus the vaccination campaign on women of reproductive age “because of the focus on eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus.” They also said that the methods needed to provide adequate protection against tetanus for unborn and newborn children require a different testing schedule than the one usually used for other forms of tetanus.

But what about the hCG detected in the vaccine? Why would it be in a tetanus vaccine at all, even in low levels “millions of times less than the amount needed to trigger this contraceptive response“? The WHO and Donovan both noted that the techniques used by the labs who tested the vaccines, and the reports they produced, are irregular and problematic. One likely explanation for the small levels of hCG detected? A false positive. Donovan explains:

“If these were labs that were using tips to test for pregnancy and such, they may not be the appropriate measuring techniques for picking up small amounts of hCG, leading to false positives.”

“I suspect that the tests that the hospital labs tried to do for the Catholic bishops weren’t really designed to test the way that they did, maybe giving them erroneous results,” he added.

For a detailed and rigorous explanation of why it is by no means certain that the tetanus vaccine is anything but a tetanus vaccine, Rational Catholic has once again done the legwork , sifting carefully through the possibilities of what may or may not have happened here, and explaining in detail how a false positive could have been found. Rational Catholic also notes:

I have seen the lab results from the tests performed at the request of the bishops in Kenya, and my understanding is that they will be published shortly in an online news source.  I will update and link to them when that happens.

The main obstacle to finding the truth seems to be that the local government in Kenya did not initially take the bishops’ concerns seriously, but that may be changing. According to a Kenyan newspaper, (link courtesy of the Rational Catholic post)

[T]he Parliamentary Committee on Health ruled that a joint team of experts from the Ministry of Health, Catholic Church and other stakeholders would conduct a fresh round of independent medical tests to end the controversy on the safety of the vaccines.

There is mistrust and bad feeling on both sides, but it is clear that both the Kenyan bishops and the Kenyan government are eager to make sure that Kenyans are not dissuaded from protecting themselves from a vaccine that saves lives, so we can only pray that the new round of testing will be definitive and that the results will be shared in a clear and transparent way. In the mean time, I urge concerned readers with good intentions to stop spreading the story that the vaccine was deliberately and secretly contaminated. This has not been proven, and can only add to the general confusion about vaccine safety.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Sarah Johnson

    Thanks for bringing a note of calm and thoughtfulness to this very troubling story.

  • Thank you for a clear article providing valuable insight to a complex situation. This is a rumor that has been spread once before and was debunked.

  • toots

    Human Life International have been promoting the falsehood that the tetanus vaccine given to women in the developing world is deliberately “laced” with HGC since 1994-1995.

    The falsehood was refuted at the time:

    Milstien J., Griffin PD, and Lee JW, Damage to Immunization Programmes from Misinformation on Contraceptive Vaccines, Reproductive Health Matters, No. 6, 1995.

    HLI, together with other perpetrators like Matercare International, continues to propagate the falsehood amongst populations of the developing world. It’s not misunderstanding. It’s misinformation spread by scientifically incompetent religious zealots.

    Up to date statement from WHO and UNICEF:

    • AnonyMom

      Thank you for bringing up HLI’s role in this. They need to be held responsible. Sadly, not all pro life organizations are trustworthy.

    • MichiganMama

      “It’s misinformation spread by scientifically incompetent religious zealots.”

      Amen. The Truth doesn’t need a boost from the deceitful.

  • Liz Ditz

    This time around, it appears to be MaterCare international and its founder, Dr. Robert Walley, who seem to be most active in spreading the long-debunked falsehood that the tetanus vaccine given to women of childbearing age is “laced” with HGC with the intent of causing miscarriages and maternal infertility.

    This is appalling behavior, to repeat a long-debunked falsehood and to support a position that puts infants and mothers in risk of a painful, protracted death from tetanus.

  • Liz Ditz

    The Kenyan vaccine manufactroversy has been discussed in detail at Respectful Insolence, with commenters who are experts in the field adding insight.

    “…a significant number of women have anti-hCG antibodies naturally. Without a control group those figures (assuming they weren’t simply made up, which wouldn’t surprise me) are meaningless.

    Also, having been involved in the development of tests using antibodies I know that interference is a major problem. Heterophile antibodies are common; if you use animal antibodies as part of your test you have to be aware that a surprising number of people have anti-animal antibodies, particularly anti-murine (anti-mouse) antibodies . There are ways of dealing with this, adding lots of mouse antigens to the reagents swamp the mouse antibodies, for example, but if the person designing the test is unaware of this, unexpected results may be obtained.”

    • MichiganMama

      Manufactroversy is the best way to describe it.

  • MichiganMama

    Thank you for writing this very informative and thoughtful post. This story rang false from the beginning.

  • Angelus77

    Except this this has been found to have happened in the Philippines, Nicaragua and Mexico in the past. I can see the concern that people have over this because if this is happening, it’s horrible. From the research that I have done, MEN are FAR more likely to contract tetanus in these countries, and yet the vaccine is being used on women and children. It makes no sense!

    I am concerned enough, that I’m contemplating no longer buying Pampers for my coming child, because they still help to fund tetanus vaccines from Unicef for women and children. I do not want my money going to render some family infertile. We’ve had our own fertility crosses, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

    • Liz Ditz

      “This has been found to have happened in the Philippines, Nicaragua and Mexico in the past.” No, the same false claim was made in those countries; was investigated, and found to be false.

      Damage to Immunisation Programmes from Misinformation on Contraceptive Vaccines Jilstien J, Griffin PD, and Lee JW, Reproductive Health Matters, No. 6, November 1995

      • Unfortunately, a link from WHO is meaningless if someone truly thinks that they are launching a covert operation to sterilize all of the women in Africa.

    • Liz Ditz

      “From the research that I have done, MEN are FAR more likely to contract tetanus in these countries, and yet the vaccine is being used on women and children. It makes no sense!”

      Women of childbearing age in low-resource countries where safe and sanitary birth practices are not easily available are at high risk of acquiring tetanus in the childbirth process, as are infants. In Kenya, more than one newborn a day is reported to die, in agony, of tetanus acquired in childbirth. Since many births and deaths in remote rural areas of Kenya are not recorded, the actual number of infant tetanus deaths may be on the order of 20 deaths a day, or up to 8,000 deaths per year.

      There is absolutely no credible evidence that tetanus vaccines administered to women of childbearing age has any planned effect on fertility.

    • toots

      Your fears are baseless. It’s not happening.

      Something horrible is, however, happening. It’s horrible that lies about the tetanus vaccine will lead to people dying who would otherwise have lived.

    • Sven2547

      I’m contemplating no longer buying Pampers for my coming child, because they still help to fund tetanus vaccines from Unicef for women and children.

      This is a great example of the damage that can be done by the spread of slanderous rumors (I’m looking directly at you, Pia de Solenni). Here we have someone refusing to even indirectly help a charity that’s doing important work.

  • Liz Ditz

    David Gorski MD has addressed the Kenya tetanus manufactroversy at Science-Based Medicine.

    “…the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association [KCDA] is a recently formed, wholly owned subsidiary of the Catholic Church in Kenya, to which doctors have been recruited to uphold Catholic teachings in medicine, particularly with respect to reproductive health. No wonder the Kenyan Catholic bishops and the KCDA are working so closely together on this!….”

    “In other words, there’s no evidence to support the claims of the KCDA, and they aren’t even plausible, given what is known about the history of vaccines using hCG coupled to tetanus toxoid. Quite simply, such vaccine linking hCG to tetanus toxin are basically history, long abandoned. They didn’t even work very well as long term contraceptive, with their effect fading after three months, much less as permanent inducers of sterility. The Catholic Church and the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association are thus engaging in fear mongering. They might believe they are doing good, but they are engaging in activity that could very well lead to the preventable deaths of Kenyan babies, as young women are frightened away from receiving the tetanus vaccine by their rhetoric and highly dubious laboratory results.”

  • Chris Nunez

    We wrestled with the initial story last week on a CST FB page. After consulting with Catholic friends in the health and medicine field we came to a consensus that the sources of the accusation were not only too ‘iffy’ but that the sources had no credible medical background. And yes, most definitely, the kind of fear mongering about the possibility of ‘sterilization’ does harm to those women who are going to give birth to infants in less than optimal conditions. This is one of the greatest threats to pregnant women and the children they carry in less developed nations. The single most important measure of a nation’s ‘development’ is its ability to provide the resources that will assure healthy pregnancies and deliveries such as access to good maternal and infant care including these kinds of services.

    The responsible thing for everybody, Catholics included, is to assure that sources are knowledgeable in the field they propose to hold forth upon. This is in fact a requisite of Catholic dialogue. Much appreciation for the well balanced article as well as the thoughtful responses on this thread. We are our sisters ‘keeper’ as well as her child’s ‘keeper’.

  • That Was Then

    But why are three doses of the vaccine needed? Isn’t just one dose enough?

    • Heather

      No. In North America, children receive their tetanus vaccinations in several stages as well, they are just spread out over several years. In order to have solid immunity you need several doses. And you still need boosters every ten years or so.

    • Liz Ditz

      The US CDC adult catch-up schedule lists 3 doses for previously unvaccinated individuals, at a minimum of 4 weeks apart.

      As I understand it, the Kenyan “every six months” dosing schedule had to do with efficient use of resources, getting to remote areas.

  • Liz Ditz

    Yesterday in the Kenyan publication Daily Nation:

    ” “The tetanus vaccine does not contain the Beta hCG group,” said the [managing director] of Lancet, one of the six labs contracted, Dr Ahmed Kalebi.

    The pathologist said the church misinterpreted the results of the tests that were conducted in his lab in March and October.



    Dr Kalebi said the vials delivered to Lancet by the church were treated as human samples and not as vaccines. “We tested these samples as we would a request to determine pregnancy”.

    The hCG hormone is produced in large amounts throughout pregnancy and therefore aids in determining results of a pregnancy test.

    He added that it was not communicated to him and his team that the vials were a vaccine and not a human specimen.

    “Had we been informed from the very beginning, we would have advised them on alternative labs to take the tests to for accurate results and even interpreted the data properly,” Dr Kalebi said.

    He explained to the Sunday Nation on the telephone that there are specific procedures for conducting tests, and a numerical figure in a test cannot be interpreted to mean the presence or absence of an element in another test.

    “We are a human-sample testing laboratory with equipment developed to carry out tests on serum, urine and other human specimens; the same procedures used on clinical tests on a matter such as pregnancy are not appropriate for tests such as a vaccine”.


    As a consequence of using these inappropriate tests, he said, low levels of hCG-like activity were found in some samples of the vaccine.”

    I am wondering when the Kenyan Catholic Medical Association, the princes of the church, and the rest will apologize. I’m not holding my breath.