On March 2 this year, 125 Nigerians on Arik Airlines plane to Johannesburg were denied entry and deported by the South African port health authority. The authority had concerns about the validity of the yellow fever vaccination cards, which the passengers had as proof of having been vaccinated against yellow fever. Nigeria reciprocated by deporting more than 60 South Africans; thus a diplomatic feud ensued until South Africa apologised.
Yellow fever, which is a viral haemorrhagic fever, is endemic in West Africa since 50 per cent of the population is not vaccinated. And Nigeria, according to a WHO report, is at risk of yellow fever outbreak while South Africa is not.
Tony, who works at one of the airlines’ stalls at the international airport said: “Yes, the fake cards were being sold freely before the disagreement between South Africa and Nigeria, but now things are a little different. I would even advise you to get vaccinated. It would help you and it is cheaper; it is just N500. People buy the fake cards because they want to get it for someone else or they don’t want to be injected.”
A visit by The Nation to the Port Health Services at MMIA ascertained the persistence of the fake cards. The Chief Nursing Officer, who did not acquiesce to the publication of her name in print, said, “The fake yellow fever cards, which had been seized by the port authority from passengers, still bear 1969 as the year of inception of issuance. Whereas it has been reviewed; now the new original ones bear 2005.
She described the incorrect vaccine batch numbers that were filled in the counterfeit cards. These, particularly, were the features the South African port health authority said they found unrecognisable and unacceptable. She said of intending passengers interested in fake cards, “These people claim they are healthy. They say, ‘I don’t have malaria; I don’t have fever.’ They don’t know yellow fever is a disease on its own and the vaccine prevents it. Yellow fever has the tendency to perforate any organ. It can kill a lot of people within 72 hours.”
Known symptoms of yellow fever are jaundice (yellowness of the skin and membranes), congestion of the face, widespread haemorrhage, nausea, and vomiting of blood. According to Wikipedia, every year, 30,000 deaths out of 200,000 cases of yellow fever occur in endemic areas.
The Chief Nursing Officer, who is also a community health expert said: “The essence of vaccination is to prevent trans-boundary communication of the disease. We shouldn’t let citizens of this country infect citizens of another country, and vice-versa.”
It should be noted that danger associated with the international transmission of yellow fever is the high mortality that accompanies the infection of population that has not been infected (non-endemic areas), while natives in endemic areas are relatively protected by acquired immunity.
On the status of the relationship of the Port Health Services with South Africa, the Chief Nursing Officer said, “South Africa does not accept vaccination cards from any other health facility, be it University of Benin Teaching Hospital or University College Hospital. They only accept those of Port Health Services. Also, there is a secret way we fill the original cards, and this is only known by us and the port health officers in South Africa.” She, however, did not say if any secret arrangements had been made with other countries to ensure authenticity of the cards.
She lamented the plight and ignorance of those who were deported in the past for possessing fake cards,
“A woman and her daughter had purchased the fake cards at N2,500 per card, only to be sent back to Nigeria. Deportees had bought the fake cards because of sheer ignorance, and because Nigerians just like short-cut to everything. These people don’t know that the yellow-fever vaccine should be administered 10 days before travelling, because it is by this time the traveller would be immunised. Also, some travel agents had also helped prospective travellers acquire fake yellow fever vaccination cards.”
A prospective traveller on the queue at the departure section of MMIA, who refused to be named, showed his yellow fever vaccination card. It was worn out and did not have the real stamp of the Port Health Services; it only had the Nigerian Coat of Arms imprint. “I have been using this card for a while. My agent procured it for me. It cost N1000. I wasn’t given any injection; In Nigeria, we don’t do that jare.”
When asked if she would attribute the sale of fake cards to laxity in the manner the Port Health Services officers discharge their duty, the Chief Nursing Officer said: “We had the vaccines, but travellers did not come. Even though it was just N500 and we administered the vaccine to them, they would rather buy the expensive fake ones without being vaccinated. However, after the South Africa problem, a lot of people have been coming here to get vaccinated. We also have a 24-hour operational clinic at the airport where people can be vaccinated.”
This reporter saw would-be passengers being vaccinated at the MMIA clinic. When a nurse was asked if the yellow fever vaccination cards could be obtained without vaccination or for someone else, she said, “No.”
On the implementation of plans by the Federal Government to curb the peddling of the fake cards, the Chief Nursing Officer said: “Directives have been given to the Nigerian Air Force and State Secret Service to arrest those printing and selling the cards. The Federal Government has said it would commission the Central Bank of Nigeria to formulate and print new cards so that they will not be easily copied.”
The yellow fever vaccination card, also known as International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, had been used to certify vaccinations against yellow fever, cholera and small pox for long. It could also be used to certify other vaccinations that individual countries may require before entry is permitted.
After the certificate was revised in 2005, only yellow fever vaccination remained mandatory. In 1973, Cholera vaccine was stopped, while WHO declared on May 8, 1980 the eradication of small pox vaccination. Immunisation against yellow fever lasts for 10 years.