Why some Africans fear Western medicine

After three years on death row for deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children in the largest documented hospital outbreak of HIV, five doctors and a nurse have been repatriated to Bulgaria. In the West, the notion of intentionally spreading AIDS seemed absurd. But here in Africa, people are not so sure. After all, the European Union is reported to have paid US$460 million in compensation.

In fact, many Africans regard Western medicine in general with deep suspicion. The most notorious instance of this was a boycott of the polio vaccine in Nigeria in 2003. This refusal was responsible for re-infecting 20 countries where the disease had been already wiped out. Especially in the mainly Muslim north of the country, it was rumoured that the vaccine contained anti-fertility agents and was contaminated with HIV.

The governor of the state of Kano suspended the vaccination campaign and two separate investigations were carried out to verify its safety. The first, from South Africa, was rejected by local leaders. Only when safety tests were performed in Muslim Indonesia were they satisfied. The federal government now supports it, but some families still refuse to have their children vaccinated.

Why are Africans spooked so readily by Western medicine?

One reason is documented cases of gross medical malpractice in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in the south. In 1995, a Scottish anaesthetist was convicted in Zimbabwe of the deaths of two infant whom he had injected with lethal doses of morphine. Wauter Basson, a former head of Project Coast, South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons unit during the time of apartheid, was charged with killing hundreds of Blacks in South Africa and Namibia between 1979 and 1987, many by poison injections. He was never convicted, even though his lieutenants testified in detail and with consistency about his crimes. It is understandably easy to interpret incidents such as these in a racial light..

Another reason is distrust of Western philanthropy's agenda. For many years fear of sterilisation has captured the minds of many Africans, mainly but not only the uneducated. During past famines, yellow maize shipments used to arrive from North America, and the word spread that this different type of maize (African maize is white) contained sterilising agents. People refused to eat it. Press investigations some years ago discovered that certain female contraceptive devices were rejects from the developed countries and had serious side effects.

Most Africans are convinced that the Western countries view high African birth-rates as serious threats. The evidence is plain: family-planning clinics in every township; huge boxes of imported condoms in the office of every community health officer; a constant barrage of birth-control propaganda on the national radio stations, which reach the most remote herdsman; billboard posters and huge newspaper regular pull-outs extolling the virtues of limiting family size; hundreds of foreign NGOs in every country, whose sole purpose is to spread the birth control message, with funding from the West. And still, after 40 years or more, the response is minimal. Africans are still having children.

With this relentless campaign to popularise the two-child family, little wonder that Africans suspect the West of less than noble motives, especially when it comes to such a delicate matter as fertility.

Cases of defective medicine are not rare either. In the east Africa region two prescription drugs have just been taken off the market. One, Viracept, is a second-line AIDS medicine, used when the first-line medicines no longer work, which had been shipped to 35 countries. It was found to be contaminated with a cancer-causing substance during manufacture in its Swiss factory. The Nairobi-based Roche Products had originally made the drug available after pressure from AIDS activists. The drug recall did not affect North America, where the drug is manufactured independently. When details like this are reported, the suspicion only deepens.

The other drug, Hedex Extra, a painkiller, took time to be taken off the market, after customer complaints of the drug’s strange smell and a press investigation, but this was due to the incompetence of the local pharmacy control board. The over-the-counter painkiller market is big business; and battles rage between the multi-nationals and local manufacturers on one hand, and the distributors and importers on the other. Western medicine is definitely here to stay.

In West Africa, the giant pharmaceutical firm Pfizer is being sued for billion of dollars by the State of Kano and by the Federal government over a 1996 drug trial which left dozens of children dead or disabled. Pfizer denies that it acted improperly, but the catastrophe helps to explain why people in Kano became suspicious of the polio vaccine several years later.

Africans do not disdain the benefits of Western medicine. Pill-popping is common. But many people still resort to traditional remedies, because they are cheaper, reliable, have no side effects, are available in remote areas, and cure a wide variety of illnesses. The countryside and forests are full of medicinal grasses and herbs. Why, people reason, should we buy packaged pill if we can process them and consume them cheaply?

Paradoxically, as more and more Africans become regular consumers of Western medicine, people from outside are trying their hand at traditional herbal medicine.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.


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