From medicines to everything else going into our bodies: Are we safe?

Monday April 19 2021
Covid-19 vaccine.

Covid-19 vaccine. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


There has been a lot of concern about the AstraZeneca/Oxford and, lately, the single-shot Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Covid-19 vaccines because they cause rare forms of blood clots. In Africa, South Africa stopped use of AstraZeneca because studies indicated it might not be effective against the so-called “South African variant” of the virus.

Now, like the US and other countries have done, it is also reviewing use of the J&J vaccine, on which it had made a big play.

There has been a widely circulating post on social media, in which some wiseacres have calculated the risk of the AstraZeneca vaccine, against other medicines and things we take in our bodies without too much worry about their risk. They claim that the risk of blood clots for an AstraZeneca vaccine is four cases in one million vaccines (0.0004 percent). The risk of blood clots from birth control pills is 500 to 1,200 cases in one million (0.05 percent to 0.12 percent). For smoking, it’s 1,773 cases in one million (0.18 percent). But even more dramatically, the risk of blood clots from a Covid-19 itself is 165,000 cases in one million (16.5 percent).

In the overall scheme of things, then, the AstraZeneca vaccine is quite safe; but countries that haven’t banned the far riskier birth control pills, and smoking, are suspending its use.

It’s the right thing to seek 100 percent safety from medicines and everything else that goes into our bodies. Except that we don’t. What’s going on?

For black people, and Africans, there is an unhappy relationship with western medicine, with our experiences littered with horrid cases of experiments in the past. There is therefore a great distrust of “mzungu pharma”, which is political and ideological, and has little to do with vaccine hesitancy in this case.


A thoughtful journalist, who has been trying to make sense of attitudes toward Covid-19 vaccines around the world, and responses over the last year to lockdown measures, however, tells me there is something bigger going on, which unites Africans, people in the West, Asia, everywhere.

He says for the West, the 75 years post-World War 2 decades have been ones largely of progress and little pain, and for most of Africa the last 30 have been better than any period before that. The result is that, depending on the country, we have one to three generations who have “completely forgotten” what suffering and uncertainty are, and they have evolved to expect a pain and risk-free world.

My mind flashed back to my years of childhood, and malaria was deadlier, with few preventive measures and medicines like we have today. Quinine would turn your eyes yellow and throw people mad. The early chloroquine would itch so much; you would scratch your skin off.

Some people have suggested that pharmaceutical companies were being racist, because malaria wasn’t ravaging the West. Be that as it may, we swallowed quinine and chloroquine when malaria struck and survived to tell the story. The side effects were 100 percent, not this puny 0.0004 percent of Covid-19 vaccines.

The varying degrees of tolerance to risk and side effects then and today, however, are as good a measure of how the world has changed as you will ever get.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]