When a meningitis outbreak in June 1996 hit Kano State, a region in northern Nigeria that is the country’s most populous state, it killed more than 11,700 children. The bacterial infection, which causes inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, and particularly affects children, spread across 12 states in Nigeria. Within six months it caused almost 110,000 cases—the worst meningitis epidemic ever recorded in the country’s history.
When the U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer learned about the meningitis outbreak in Kano, it decided to use it as an avenue to test an antibacterial drug called Trovan in children with meningitis. Pfizer recruited some 200 children and young people to take part in a clinical trial, and gave Trovan to half the study participants. Within a month, 11 children had died. Scores more were left with debilitating injuries including blindness, deafness, and paralysis. (Pfizer maintains that the deaths and injuries were the results of meningitis, and not the drugs it administered.)
The aftermath of the drug trial was a decade-long legal battle between the U.S. pharmaceutical giant, the Nigerian government, and the Kano State government. In 2009, Pfizer negotiated a $75 million out-of-court settlement with the Kano state government. The company maintained that the trial was proper and did not admit any wrongdoing.
But wider consequences of the trial are still felt today. Although the original trial was for a drug, not a vaccine, people’s distrust and concerns stemming from the trial are causing hesitancy around—and even boycotting of—COVID-19 vaccines by communities in Kano.
“In Kano State, Nigeria, vaccine hesitancy is not only driven by conspiracy theories or mistrust in science. As health advocates struggle to fight disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, it is important to remember that in some countries distrust stems not only from ignorance, but also from lived experience,” write Nigerian journalists Mahdi Garba and Modupe Abidakun in their feature “Vaccine Hesitancy—the Pfizer Kano Case,” published in Unbias the News on July 12, 2021.
Their article chronicles the experiences of victims and families of the controversial drug trial, including Hajiya Maryam (not her real name), who recounts how the trial left her now-28-year-old son with speech and hearing impairments.
Abdullahi Tsanni spoke with Garba and Abidakun about how they pitched, developed, and reported the feature together, and why the story was important to tell.
How did you develop the idea and pitch this story to Unbias the News?
Abidakun: Originally, my pitch idea focused on medical colonialism in Africa. I wanted to write a story about how Western researchers have carried out research on African patients without informed consent; taking their samples and producing medicines for them to buy without their knowledge. I pitched the story idea to a different publication, but I didn’t hear back.
After a couple of weeks, I decided to pitch the story to Unbias the News [a feminist, cross-border newsroom created to work toward more equitable and inclusive journalism], after a friend sent me the call for pitches. Shortly after, I received a response from the Unbias the News team notifying me that my application was successful, adding that there was also another journalist with a similar story idea. They suggested that I should work on a collaborative piece with the journalist. I was happy to do so, and I accepted to work with Mahdi on the story. We had our first meeting to discuss the nitty-gritty of the story, including angles and sources to interview.
Garba: When the COVID-19 vaccination campaign kicked off in early March, in Nigeria, top government officials, politicians, and health workers posted photos of themselves on social media platforms receiving COVID-19 jabs. But I noticed that in the comment sections of some of the posts I came across, many people, especially from the northern parts of Nigeria, were skeptical about taking the vaccines. They were suspicious that there was a hidden agenda in the delivery of vaccines from the West. Some people also asked questions like: What will happen to them if they get vaccines? What happened to those who took vaccines in the past?
I realized that there’s a public mistrust about vaccines, and people gave reference to past events such as the Kano case as reasons for their skepticism. This is where my idea came from. I have been a member of HostWriter [a nonprofit that helps journalists collaborate across borders and that created Unbias the News in 2021] since April 2021, and I received the call for pitches from Unbias the News. My pitch got accepted, but the editors suggested that I should work together with Modupe because our story ideas were similar, and we both live in Nigeria.
What did you want to achieve with the story?
Abidakun: People who are skeptical about vaccines get a lot of vitriol and backlash. I wanted to show the world that vaccine denialism is not necessarily unfounded, that there are backgrounds and historical contexts to it. Some people in Nigeria are boycotting vaccines because of their lived experiences of medical research that has went wrong, rather than conspiracy theories. That’s why I thought that it is important to highlight these issues so that they can be addressed by the scientific world to build public trust in science.
Garba: One of the objectives of Unbias the News is to tell underreported stories and highlight the impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented communities. I wanted to produce a story that would be relevant to the public, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria, and to highlight the causes of vaccine hesitancy and the experiences of people in the Pfizer drug trial.
Tell us about the process for this story. How did you work on it together?
Abidakun: We had a meeting to discuss the writing and reporting process including questions, sources to interview, and research. For my part, I did a lot of [online] research on the meningitis outbreak in Kano, to understand the context of the disease, and to find papers on drug trials in Africa and on vaccine hesitancy. I also spoke to researchers working on medical ethics in Nigeria. Mahdi had already connected with the sources in Kano and spoken with them.
Garba: Modupe is a medical student at the University of Ibadan, and she understands vaccines and all the medical jargon. She covered the issue from southern Nigeria, while I covered the ground reporting in Kano. We used a Google Doc that everyone had access to, including our editors—they could see and make changes and contributions as the story developed. Our editor, Mercy Abang, put comments in. I enjoyed working on Google Docs. We briefed our editors about every step in the development of the story, and they guided us on how to structure the whole story.
The Kano Pfizer case happened about two decades ago. Was it difficult finding the people affected by the Pfizer drug trial to interview?
Garba: Finding the victims was not difficult. But [getting them] to speak to a journalist was the biggest problem. As some of them said, after the token they were given as compensation, they have been asked to let sleeping dogs lie. So, it is the few of them that agreed to speak to us under the condition of anonymity. We had to assure them that their identities will be protected, before they granted the interviews.
There is always a way to reach out to sources as a journalist. It was difficult to get them to talk—most of them didn’t want to talk to the media because they’re afraid that [the media] will send in negative information about them to the government. The victims I interviewed pleaded for anonymity and for their identities to be protected, which I accepted and I made them understand that the report will be used in different ways.
I also got connected to people close to the victims. So that gave me an upper hand. The moment I approached the victims with a family member [of theirs] and confirmed that I would protect their identities, they gave [me their] full attention.
You conducted some interviews in the local language, Hausa. How did you ensure that you accurately represent what your sources were saying in English?
Garba: I am native Hausa speaker and I have experience in translating Hausa to English. I did the translation job myself to ensure that the message was passed accurately. I also contacted other native Hausa speakers who understand English to run a fact-check over the translation that I did.
Were you worried that covering this story now could mean it could be used in a way that might actually increase vaccine hesitancy, either in Nigeria or elsewhere in the world?
Abidakun: I was worried that people will think we are supporting vaccine hesitancy, but if they come from an honest point of view and read the full story, they’ll understand that we have a valuable message. I am vaccinated and I encourage the people around me to get vaccinated too.
What do you want readers to think, do, or feel as a result of your story?
Abidakun: In the news, there’s been some coverage about vaccine hesitancy in Nigeria, but these stories did not speak to ordinary people like the victims of the Pfizer drug trial in Kano. For me, it was important for ordinary people to tell their own stories with their own voices. I want our story to provide context and widen the perspective of readers to understand vaccine hesitancy and the reasons behind it.
Garba: People are skeptical about vaccines; we wanted the public to understand one of the reasons why—unethical big pharma practices in Nigeria. That’s why we chronicled the stories of the victims. But our message wasn’t looking to increase vaccine distrust among the public, rather to nudge people to take the vaccines.
What kind of reaction have you had to the story? Do you know how the people you interviewed in Kano responded to it?
Garba: When the story was published and shared on social media, I sent it to one of the relatives of the victims of the Pfizer drug trials, and he was happy to read it. The others don’t have a smart phone. Our story got republished on several other platforms such as African Arguments, Sahara Reporters, the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, and HumAngle.
What advice would you give to journalists looking to collaborate to tell underreported stories?
Abidakun: Always keep an open mind as a journalist, and be open for collaborations. I’ve learned a lot working on this story with Mahdi. It wasn’t the exact idea I had initially, but with collaboration we produced something better than I could have produced alone. Ask questions on payments and expenses, and make sure you understand the terms of your contract before you sign it. Keep talking to your collaborator to ensure that you’re on the same page.
Garba: I believe that collaborative journalism is just like the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” No man is an island. I will encourage journalists to collaborate and pitch their story ideas. Don’t be scared to send your pitch to international publications. You never know—your story could be global.
Abdullahi Tsanni is a science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria, and is currently a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has reported on science, health, agriculture, and biotechnology issues in Nigeria for Nature, The British Medical Journal (BMJ), Nigeria Health Watch, and African Newspage, among other publications. He works as a volunteer with Science Communication Hub Nigeria and African Science Literacy Network, and has a degree in biochemistry. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni.