"Working for a healthier world" is the trademarked slogan for Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company, but Nigerian authorities, human rights groups, and the global media have provided evidence of Pfizer's actions to the contrary. In May of 2007, criminal charges as well as a $2 billion dollar civil lawsuit against Pfizer were filed on behalf of Kano, Nigeria, the country's largest state, for what many deem as a violation of international law and a complete disregard for human rights.
According to reports assembled by Nigerian government officials and a panel of Nigerian medical professionals, Pfizer conducted drug tests on 200 children in Kano during a meningitis outbreak that raged throughout West Africa in 1996. The children (including infants) were selected at random from the crowds of people stationed at an impromptu quarantine facility reserved for those suffering from the effects of the outbreak. The civil lawsuit indicates specifics of the testing, which included the administering of the experimental Pfizer drug Trovan* to one hundred children, and a "dangerously low dose of a comparison drug made by Hoffman-LaRoche," a Swiss pharmaceutical company, to the remaining half. The researchers involved in the testing had full knowledge that the medication had "life-threatening side-effects" and that it may have been "unfit for human use" at the time it was given to the children. Officials have demonstrated that Pfizer's actions yielded tragic results. All of the children used in the tests experienced life-altering side effects from the drugs. The children were left blind, deaf, paralyzed, brain-damaged, and others even died, leading the international community to question the validity of the response Pfizer issued regarding the pending criminal charges, in which they stated that, "Pfizer's doctors had solid scientific evidence that it would provide a safe and effective treatment against the deadly disease [meningitis]" and that they were engaged in "an effort that provided significant benefit to some of Nigeria's youngest citizens."
Additional allegations enumerated in the lawsuit, including a) that the parents of the children were not provided with accurate information regarding the testing or alternative treatments, b) the parents were not allowed to visit their children at the testing ward, c) that Pfizer never obtained the parents' consent to test on their children, and finally, d) that Pfizer fabricated documentation regarding the study itself have compelled Nigerians from all walks of life to take action. While members of the legal and political sectors seek to hold Pfizer accountable for their actions in order to obtain monetary coverage of the necessary resources to care for the severely disabled surviving children, civilians have called for the prosecution of Pfizer for more personal reasons. The use of impoverished, "Third World," children and/or oppressed peoples as human guinea pigs for the sake of scientific advancement is nothing new. Dangerous (often lethal) testing on humans is commonplace not only during war, but also in times of political and social unrest. In addition, poor communities around the world, including populations in Western nations, are often subjected to environmental injustice by way of laissez-faire government policies regarding the practices of waste management facilities, weapons testing sites, and factories that are placed adjacent to their neighborhoods.
This frequency of victimization leads many of those affected by such violence to harbor suspicion toward the government (in their respective nations as well as foreign), non-government organizations, volunteers, and healthcare professionals. Some parents in Kano, for example, feared that a polio immunization program initiated in Nigeria last year was yet another opportunity for Western drug companies to test on their children and refused to bring them to receive a basic shot. The unethical practices of resource providers such as Pfizer have permanently destroyed any remaining fragment of faith that populations in need may have had in organizations (corporate, governmental, or volunteer) that work to provide assistance for ongoing health issues in developing nations and lower-income communities.
As more details of this case are exposed, the world is reminded, little by little, that the lives of the economically and politically disadvantaged have little value in the eyes of companies that can only see the color green. More must be done to ensure not only that unethical medical practices are prosecuted, but that they do not continue in the future. It starts with us.
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*Trovan is presently banned in the E.U. In 1997, it was cleared for adult use in the United States, but after reports that the Pfizer-produced antibiotic had led to liver damage and even death, the FDA allowed restricted use in limited circumstances.