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Kenyan Catholics versus the Pope?

By Jacqueline Wahome| July 16, 2021

Editor’s note:

In March 2021, Dr Stephen Karanja, in his capacity as the head of the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association, wrote a long (and in places confusing) advisory against the use of vaccines in Kenya; it mentions Bill Gates and ‘partisan interests’.

His advice contradicted both the Catholic Medical Association and the Vatican itself. It also suggested the use of a number of provably false cures, such as hydroxychloroquine and steam. Two months later, he became one of many prominent anti-vaccination campaigners around the world who have succumbed to the disease. 

When you think of anti-vaxxers, health workers are the last people you would expect to fit the profile. However, when it comes to the COVID vaccine, we have seen cases of vaccine hesitancy among medics. In fact, the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association (KCDA) came out strongly condemning the vaccine via an open letter dated 3rd March 2021. The Catholic Church however distanced itself from KCDA’s statement, noting that, ‘it is licit and ethically acceptable to receive all COVID-19 vaccines that the Ministry of Health recognizes as clinically genuine, safe and effective.’ However, KCDA has continued to campaign against the vaccine to date.

Three months since Kenya received its first batch of COVID vaccines, data shared by the Ministry of Health shows that over 970,000 people have received their first dose. As of 2nd June, 471 had received their second dose. Among these are those placed on the priority list by the government’s vaccination plan, that is: health workers, security officers, teachers, and others, mainly those over the age of 58.

A number of healthcare workers, who we look up to for medical advice, are reluctant to get the shot. Meanwhile ordinary Kenyans who aren’t on the priority list are scrambling for the opportunity to get vaccinated. A quick look at the Ministry’s statistics shows a trend where uptake of the vaccine has been generally low among health workers.

Vaccine Uptake Trends

Since 7th April, the earliest disaggregated data sets we could find from the Ministry of Health, the health workers accounted for 28% of all those who had received their first dose of the vaccine. As of 15th April, this figure was 22%, followed by 20% on 19th April, and finally 17% as at 2nd June. However, when it came to the second dose, this figure suddenly shoots up with healthcare workers accounting for 86% of all those who got their second dose by 2nd June.

So why did medics hesitate to get vaccinated? To find out, I spoke to Dr. Kanyiri, a young medical doctor practising in a private facility in Nyeri. According to Dr. Kanyiri, he was eager to get vaccinated from the get-go. However, he noticed that his colleagues were reluctant to be first in line. Apparently, they had been swayed by the screenshots of alarmist headlines being shared all over WhatsApp, supposedly documenting deaths caused by the COVID vaccine in other parts of the world.

Then came the anti-vaxx videos from medical practitioners. One was an interview of Dr. Wahome Ngare, a gynaecologist who also serves as the Assistant Secretary to KCDA. The interview was hosted by Gerald Bitok, a Kenyan personality with 7.63 thousand subscribers on YouTube. In the video, which has garnered 10,000 views since it premiered on 10th March 2021, Dr. Wahome asserts that “we do not need the vaccine because there is treatment that is effective”. He also claims that we should not allow our medical history to determine if we are allowed to access services or to travel. The 48 comments under the video show overwhelming support of the doctor’s position and arguments. Only one user disagreed with the doctor’s stance. On Facebook, the video has been viewed 9.2 thousand times, and has attracted 221 likes and 275 comments, and shared 159 times.

The second was a video recording of Jack Githae, a traditional medical practitioner who claims to have been a consultant for organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Commonwealth Secretariat, among others. The video has been shared across platforms such as Facebook, where it has had 5.2 thousand views since it was posted on 17th March 2021, and on YouTube by at least two different users, where it has garnered 554 views since 18th March 2021, and 134 since 26th March 20,21. In the video, Dr. Githae argues that the government should not be giving the vaccine until it is “double sure” that the vaccine is safe. Claiming that people in other countries have suddenly died after getting the vaccine, he urges that we should wait and see what happens elsewhere before we take it.

This is the same approach described by Dr. Kanyiri: “those who were hesitant started by observing the ones who got the shot first, and when nothing adverse happened to them after 4 weeks, then they got the confidence to also go for it.” According to him, those who have not received the second dose of the vaccine, himself included, are eagerly waiting for the next batch of doses to arrive.

As of 3rd June 2021, over 2 billion doses of the COVID vaccine had been issued worldwide. It has been reported that some countries, such as Israel, have already reported “marked and sustained declines in the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection” as more of their population received two doses of the vaccine.

Given the wide reach of these videos and their potential impact on the Kenyan population, I used open-source investigation techniques to try and understand the driving force behind the campaign against the vaccine by these two medical practitioners.

Dr. Wahome Ngare explains that KCDA is a membership association that brings together doctors who have vowed to conduct their practice guided by the catholic faith doctrine. He asserts that the practice of medicine as a science can be thoroughly abused and that medical practitioners must base the practice on a moral foundation. He argues that KCDA did not present a moral basis for their stance against the vaccine, but rather, they assert that it is unnecessary because there already exists an effective treatment for COVID-19. In this TV interview from October 2019, he said the same thing about the HPV vaccine, saying that, “it is a totally useless vaccine; we don’t need it at all.” This is a vaccine which, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been proven useful in preventing cervical cancer.

Less than two months after KCDA issued the statement that the vaccine is unnecessary because we already have effective treatment against COVID-19, the sitting chair of KCDA, Dr. Stephen Karanja died from COVID-19. KCDA is yet to issue a comment on this, and they also have not commented on whether they maintain their stance against the COVID vaccine.

Regarding the second video recording of Dr. Jack Githae, this blog post reports that he is a veterinary doctor who studied Animal Science at the University of New Mexico, but had a passion for traditional herbal medicine, which he learnt from his grandmother. He eventually made the transition into being a full-time traditional medicine practitioner. At the time of the video, his claims that the vaccine caused death had already been debunked, and so was his claim that the vaccine is a tool to reduce the African population.

While these videos may have contributed to Dr. Kanyiri’s initial reluctance to get the COVID vaccine shot, this fear gradually subsided when he and others like him saw that it caused no adverse effects to those who went first. He adds that he is now eagerly looking forward to getting his second shot.

Update: Upon following up with Dr. Kanyiri, he was happy to report that he got his second dose on 7th June, 2021.

This is an edited version of a story by Jacqueline Wahome which originally appeared here.