|Firdausi became mentally handicapped, her mother
claims, after she was used to test a meningitis drug
Al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege speaks to residents of Kano in Nigeria who claim a vaccine, manufactured and adminstered by US pharmaceutical giant Prizer, was responsible for the deaths of local children, as hearings resume in a Nigerian lawsuit against the firm.
Thirteen-year-old Firdausi Abdullahi is severely mentally handicapped, suffering from a condition her mother claims is a result of scientific negligence.
Zainab Abdullahi says Firdausi was used along with 200 other children as “guinea pigs” to test a meningitis drug.
That is the central allegation in a criminal case pitting the state government of Kano in Nigeria against the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer.
Hearings resume in the case on Wednesday with the government alleging Pfizer deceived patients and caused the deaths of 11 of them in 1996 when performing clinical trials for a new meningitis vaccine, Trovan.
Poor and illiterate
It also claims many other children like Firdausi were left with permanent health problems after being treated with the drug.
Half of the 200 children chosen in the trial were administered with Trovan while the other half were administered with a proven meningitis vaccine.
Like many Nigerians in the predominately Muslim area of Kano, Zainab Abdullahi is poor and illitereate.
Coupled with the fact that the Pfizer trial was 10 years ago it is no surprise that she cannot produce written documentation of her daughter’s alleged participation in the test.
“I am not even contemplating,” she tells Al Jazeera. “I am very sure that it was the drugs that were administered to my child that have made her what she is now.”
‘Plea for help’
Pfizer declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, but rejects all the charges and has defended its presence in West Africa saying it was responding to an international plea for help and that the victims died from meningitis.
|Halima Sani is another mother nursing a child
she alleges was handicapped by the drug trial
The meningitis outbreak near Kano in 1996 killed more than 12,000 children in just six months.
“Trovan was effective in helping save lives during the 1996 meningitis epidemic,” Pfizer said in an official statement.
“Pfizer stands by its trial, which was conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the Nigerian government and consent of the participants.”
But the Kano authorities allege Pfizer did not get all the necessary approvals before conducting the trail.
“Pfizer came here with a motive. If it had come here purposefully with a humanitarian gesture, the government would have been responsible,” Aliyu Umar, the attorney general of Kano state, tells Al Jazeera.
“But Pfizer was conscious of what it wanted and it went ahead to achieve what they wanted, that is to say, we want to test these vaccines – not because we want to sell it in Africa – we want sell it in America where they have more education.”
“It was not meant for Kano. We were just numbers.”
In the poverty-ridden streets of Kano the legacy of the epidemic has bred fear and mistrust among some of those who think they were affected by the meningitis trial.
“I am very sceptical of going to the doctor,” Zainab Abdullahi says. “I had twins. One became seriously ill and needed a drip. But I was worried that something would happen.
“I decided not to take her to the hospital and so she died at home.”
The state government is seeking $2 billion in compensation. But the people of Kano doubt they will ever see the money that could lift them out of poverty.
Halima Sani, another mother nursing a handicapped child she alleges was affected by the drug trial, thinks they will get nothing.
“The burden is always on the poor people,” she says. “We don’t know how to go about the whole thing. Now if they get this money, it may not get to us, it will go missing on the way.”
Pfizer will certainly face a hostile reception in Kano and rights groups are planning to hold demonstrations.
The government has promised to invest the funds into Kano’s health service if it wins.
But its been 10 years since the event and the people have seen nothing.
A guilty verdict for Pfizer and a payout is what they are now counting on.