Some bacteria are colonial

Human experimentsRobert Koch and the crimes of doctors in Africa

Eight years ago, Ahmat Hassan was still living in Chad. In Gouro, a village with 8,000 inhabitants on the edge of the Sahara, he worked for the Ministry of Education. Two Toyota pickups arrived at noon, the trunk full of syringes and vials. Inside were ten men who had been trained by the Ministry of Health to vaccinate children in the village against meningitis.

"This team vaccinated about 500 children between the ages of one and 15. In a very short time, three children got sick and their condition got worse. They shook their heads, vomited, had diarrhea. Nevertheless, they continued until the third day."

106 out of 500 children: sick. 40 of them difficult. This is what Hassan reports. Her parents took her to the hospital, 250 km away. Two weeks later the President came to visit. He had 38 children taken to two hospitals in the capital, N’Djamena, and seven to Tunisia for further examinations. This is evidenced by a government document. But instead of getting to the bottom of the cause, the president had the hospital surrounded by the military, recalls Hassan.

"When the children got to the hospital in N‘Djamena, he prevented journalists from reporting. At that time we thought he had something to hide."

Was there really a vaccination scandal in Gouro in 2012?

Hassan wrote an article for the citizen newspaper "la voix". An email to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports the vaccination campaign. Mails to the government. Without success. He suspects that the MenAfriVac vaccine cold chain was broken and the children became ill as a result. Officially, the children have long been cured. Ahmat Hassan says they are not.

Hassan now lives as a translator in London. For him, what happened on December 12, 2012 in Gouro is a vaccination scandal. He asks: Why didn't anyone have to answer for it? Do different rules apply in Africa than in Europe? He doesn't believe the official statements.

"We see it that the WHO has something to hide and our government - and this is the big surprise - is playing along. With what interest ?! It is there to protect us, to help us, and when a vaccination scandal has occurred , you need money, care, you have to get to the bottom of the cause, look for solutions. "

The trust in pharmaceutical companies, in international donors and especially in the Chadian government is not great in Gouro. They are even trusted to illegally test an unapproved vaccine - although there is no evidence for it.

Robert Koch at the microscope in his laboratory in Kimberley in South Africa in 1896. (ADN / dpa image archive)

The roots of mistrust lie in the colonial era

This may also be due to the dissatisfaction with President Idris Deby's policies. But the roots of mistrust lie deeper. During the colonial period, doctors from Europe abused people in Africa for research purposes - and thus achieved their reputation.

Robert Koch, 1903, from Bulawayo: "At home we have already worked up so thoroughly and the competition is so huge that it is really no longer worth researching there. But out here, the gold of science is still there the street. How many new things I saw and learned when I came to Africa for the first time! "

"What surprised me most about this research was that many of these young doctors weren't so interested in improving living conditions on the colonial periphery as they had more ambitious plans, namely to get into research and try drugs on the colonial periphery . So that means African research on the periphery for preparations that should be used in the mother country. "

Says Professor Wolfgang Eckart, former head of the Institute for the History and Ethics of Medicine at Heidelberg University. He was the first German scientist who reconstructed the atrocities of German doctors in the former African colonies and published it in 1997 in the book "Medicine and Colonial Imperialism - Germany 1884 to 1945".

Taking blood from a crocodile carcass (Robert Koch Institute)

Medicine played a key role in the exploitation of Africa

"There were a number of diseases that needed to be researched. The tropical diseases that made it difficult to survive on the colonial periphery, malaria for example, many other types of febrile and infectious diseases that were not so common in Europe. All of this posed medicine faces new challenges in order to actually serve its main purpose: namely the exploitation of colonial treasures, as it was hoped to make as cheap as possible. "

Medicine therefore played a key role in the colonization of Africa. Without their progress, Africa could never have been explored and exploited. At that time, the most renowned tropical medicine specialists came from Germany, above all the Nobel Prize winner Robert Koch. Even as a boy he dreamed of becoming a traveling researcher like his role model Alexander von Humboldt. With the colonial rule, this dream came true. In 1883, at the age of 39, he accompanied one of the first tropical medical expeditions on the trail of a deadly epidemic.

Robert Koch in the laboratory tent on the Sese Islands, 1905/06 (Robert Koch Institute)

On the hunt for the cholera bacterium

"The colonial archives show that there were several global outbreaks of epidemics in the 19th century. Several epidemiologists and biologists such as John Snow, Louis Pasteur and also Robert Koch were looking for therapy. When cholera was abusing in Egypt, Robert Koch went to Alexandria with the aim of isolating the bacterium. "

What he didn't succeed, says Dr. Edna Bonhomme from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She dealt with Robert Koch's research projects in the former colonies. When the cholera epidemic subsided, Koch moved on to India. There he described the transmission routes and thus cemented his reputation as an excellent infectiologist. But also as a narcissistic researcher, driven by scientific knowledge, at any cost.

1905/06: Expedition in search of the pathogens causing sleeping sickness (Robert Koch Institute)

Sleeping sickness threatens the colonial infrastructure

Robert Koch soon spent half of his time traveling: South Africa, German East Africa, in 1906 he moved to the Sese Islands in Lake Victoria for two years on behalf of the German government. There he found an epidemic of sleeping sickness, which in just a few years had killed a quarter of a million people in what is now Uganda. Edna Bonhomme:

"It is an insect-borne parasite that affects not only humans but animals as well, causing a slowly progressing disease. Sleeping sickness was considered a mystery. In the early 20th century, East and Central Africa was called an epidemic. Back then there was still no antidote. The disease can also be fatal, especially if left untreated. This is why it was an issue for some colonial rulers because they feared having fewer workers available. "

The colonial rulers urgently needed them for the expansion of the infrastructure. Therefore, the colonial powers of the neighboring areas feared that an epidemic could plunge the colonial project into crisis. The Sese Islands, named after the tsetse fly that transmits sleeping sickness, were under British rule and the colonial powers also competed in medicine. But colonialism was also seen as a European project. That's why they helped each other.

Blood test in a sleeping sickness patient ( KHARBINE TAPABOR)

Dosing tests with the arsenic-containing agent Atoxyl

"Koch was invited by British officials; after all, he was a world-famous scientist. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1905. He was considered the best and most celebrated researcher in the world. If he fails to find a cure for sleeping sickness, then whom. He took his wife, an actress, and numerous assistants. Koch had all the resources he needed, he was powerful and privileged, and he was respected by the British Colonial Ministers. "

As a drug, he tested the arsenic-containing agent Atoxyl. It was known that it is toxic in high doses. Nevertheless, he gradually increased the dose to one gram of Atoxyl, injected at intervals of seven to ten days and accepted pain, blindness and the death of thousands of people.

"These experiments were carried out on animals in Germany. They were forbidden on humans. In Africa, however, Koch used people as research subjects in a way that would never have been allowed in Germany."

Robert Koch also carried out completely irresponsible human experiments in Germany - the tuberculin scandal thoroughly ruined his reputation (Robert Koch Institute)

Systematic human experiments in "concentration camps"

In order to examine around 1000 patients per day, he isolated the supposedly sick in so-called concentration camps: a collection of straw huts and rudimentary tents that were blown over in a storm. Everything was missing: blankets, clean water, and there was often only flour and salt to eat. Nobody knows how many people died because of these conditions alone. There were concentration camps not only on the Sese Islands, but everywhere where European doctors came to defeat epidemics. Wolfgang Eckart found out that many also used their imprisonment to experiment with arbitrary injections:

"The population was suspicious and they also had reasons to be suspicious. This was particularly the case with sleeping sickness, especially in West Africa, where large numbers of African people who were thought to be infected with sleeping sickness were brought together in such camps. They were also called concentration camps in order to carry out human experiments, so-called therapeutic experiments, on them in a situation that made escape impossible. And a doctor once put it this way, we are not really concerned with the number, first and foremost of the survivors, we want to see how the dose of medication has to be designed so that it can best be endured. And the least number of people die in the process. "

Sleeping sickness patients on the 1905/06 expedition - was it about healing or scientific fame? (Robert Koch Institute)

German doctors test on Africans what they later perfect on Jews

Colonial medicine shouldn't help people in need. It served the economic upswing of the colony - and new knowledge for German science and the pharmaceutical industry. That is why the colonial doctors have injected extremely painful oil and salt solutions into people for no reason or exposed them in the desert to see how long they will survive there. For decades, these horror stories hid behind the crimes of the Nazi regime in the concentration camps. In the meantime, the German doctors have tried out on Africans what they later perfected on Jews, homosexuals and political opponents. Eckart:

"There are no direct analogies to the extermination camps in World War II or during the National Socialist dictatorship. But if you look at the structure of what happened there: The human experiments in a special situation of bondage, total dependence, and absolute physical dependence Totality, the aspect that deaths were accepted - then one has to say that these camps resembled the later extermination camps or the concentration camps in a certain way. In addition, there were personal continuities. "

The defendant Claus Schilling before the U.S. military court in Dachau (imago stock & people)

Personal continuities from "tropical medicine specialists" to Nazi criminals

For example with Claus Schilling: until 1905 he ran a practice for locals in Togo and carried out questionable experiments on them. He later infected the mentally ill in Italy and over 1000 prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp with malaria in order to find a drug against the tropical disease. Although he maintained to the last that his brutal attempts were serving a good cause, he was sentenced to death in the 1945 trial against the Dachau guards.

"He initially protested his innocence and said that all of these things would have served a good cause, but when suddenly his test protocols surfaced and the whole brutality of his attempts became very obvious, then he had a fit of rage in court and it was very obvious showed that there was an admission of guilt and a capacity to be guilty and he was punished for that. "

Or the race hygienist Eugen Fischer, founder of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. He was so shocked at the sight of the children of white colonial rulers and black women in Nigeria that he had them forcibly sterilized. In 1937 he brutally rendered 500 to 800 children of German women and French soldiers in the Rhineland sterile against their will. Even though it was illegal in Germany back then.

Or Ernst Rodenwaldt, also a racial fanatic and spokesman for the National Socialist movement.

"And if you also consider that Ernst Rodenwaldt, as a member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, headed a section that dealt with global medical issues after 1945, then it seems like a mockery today."

Until his death in 1965 he also worked as a consultant for the medical services of the Bundeswehr and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation in development aid.

Colonial officials in the West African Lome (Togo), around 1905 (picture-alliance / akg-images)

Smallpox vaccination disaster in the German colony of Togo

From 1909 to 1913 he carelessly carried out mass smallpox vaccinations in what was then the German colony of Togo. Hundreds of people, around five to ten percent of all those vaccinated, died in the next outbreak in 1911 because the pathogen in the live vaccine was often ineffective. Eckart:

"That gave him a relatively bad reputation in the colonial periphery and caused a vaccination fatigue, yes, a vaccination hostility in the African population, which was unprecedented. That fit very well into the great skepticism towards Western medicine, which one tends to do regarded as hostile medicine and not as helpful medicine. And often rightly had the impression that what served completely different purposes should be tested on the bodies of Africans. "

The smallpox vaccine and its pitfalls were well researched. Since 1874, vaccination against smallpox has been mandatory in the Reich. At the beginning of 1900 the vaccine was shipped from the Royal Institute in Dresden to Togo. When he arrived it was mostly dilapidated. Therefore, from 1902 onwards, the colonial doctors began to breed the live vaccine themselves from calf lymph on site. But they did so for twenty generations, so that in the end the vaccination again had no effect. They simply left the prescribed effectiveness test. As the reason for the many deaths among the vaccinated, they simply stated that it was a particularly stubborn biological variety of the pathogen. By then they had long since gambled away the trust of the locals. While they initially stood in line at the rudimentary vaccination stations, the colonial doctors later forced them to vaccinate.

"Brave patient" at the smallpox vaccination in Natal 1904 - the colonial government ordered a general vaccination (picture alliance / Everett Collection)

Forced treatment even when the Ebola outbreak occurs?

Chernoh Bah is one who believes cases like this have continued to this day: "Even with the last Ebola outbreak in the Congo, there was a situation where people complained that they had been forced to seek treatment."

The sociologist from Sierra Leone belongs to a generation of young Africans who are digging. He grew up in the former British protectorate of Sierra Leone, where doctors from the Liverpool Institute once researched tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever and tested drugs against European diseases. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014/2015, when researchers, doctors and volunteers poured into Sierra Leone from the west, he experienced how much the past has shaped people emotionally to this day. And how quickly mistrust arises:

"I know of a situation at a treatment center in Freetown where Ebola patients were allegedly given the heart drug amiodarone to cure them. Later doctors and nurses protested. They claimed that many people at that center died because they were wrong Had received treatment. "

In 2014, a person who died from Ebola was buried in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AFP / Florian Plaucheur)

Therapy attempts with drugs not approved for Ebola

The drug, which is normally used for cardiac arrhythmias, had also worked against Ebola in a German laboratory study in Hanover: Amiodarone may have prevented the virus from penetrating the cells. But this hadn't even been checked on rats. That is why the WHO and the government in Sierra Leone did not put the preparation on the list of drugs that could be administered against Ebola as long as there was no effective antidote.

The treatment center Lakka was run by the Italian NGO "Emergency". The carers were volunteers from the UK. They brought the trials to light because injecting high doses caused respiratory disease and inflammation in some patients - and a death rate of 67%. In other treatment centers, an average of 50 to 60% of those infected with Ebola died.

Emergency then stopped the tests, that was it. No investigation, no trial, no compensation. That is why people have the impression that they are being abused, says Bah - just like the colonial doctors back then. The conviction that white researchers and doctors do not want to help Africans but rather benefit from them is deeply rooted in the psyche of many people. In particular, where current cases of abuse are reminiscent of those from the past.

Mistrust extends into the Covid-19 times

"Today stories are circulating in West Africa, in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia; witnesses tell how families died during the Ebola outbreak because they received experimental drugs that were not suitable for treating Ebola patients. Those affected will Be very suspicious in times of Covid when they learn that doctors from the West - not that there are no decent doctors there - but just remembering all of these things has an impact on how people interact with people from other parts of the world interact with the world. "

In 2015, after the great Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Chernoh Bah became a scientist. He traveled along the chain of infection to what is presumably the first infected person in neighboring Guinea. Conducted interviews with 2000 people. And he wrote a book in which he criticized the actions of the researchers from the West and that of his government. A professor at Northwestern University became aware of him during his readings in the United States. He offered to do his doctorate with him. He has lived in Chicago with his son since 2016.

"Now I am working on the history of medical experiments in prisons and the application of tropical medicine research. I am concerned with experiments carried out in Sierra Leone and parts of West Africa by British scientists, but also by other European doctors who have been involved in transnational studies on pathogens and the origins of diseases were involved. "

The English Nobel Prize winner Ronald Ross identified the Anopheles mosquito as a carrier of malaria ( Short)

Experiments by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine on inmates

The focus of his research is on Sierra Leone during the First and Second World Wars. The British exercised their power there through local rulers. They exported palm oil, coffee and cocoa, and from the 1930s on they also exported diamonds. And they discovered Sierra Leone as a laboratory: in 1899 the tropical medicine specialist Ronald Ross found out there that malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito. In 1921 Alfred Jones, the founder of the British counterpart to the Robert Koch Institute, opened a branch in the capital.

"The Liverpool School had a laboratory in Sierra Leone and scientists from Liverpool were involved in some experiments on sleeping sickness, river blindness and blackwater fever."

They carried out the experiments primarily on prison inmates who regularly suffered from outbreaks of tropical diseases. They also had to struggle with intestinal diseases such as red dysentery, which was also common in Europe at the time. That suited the British government in Europe. When the chemist Harrison Martindale developed the antidote Emitin, doctors at the Liverpool School in Sierra Leone tested it on African soldiers who fought for the Empire in Cameroon and Togo against the Germans during the First World War. The side effects; They accepted nausea and heart problems and later continued the tests on inmates.

Comparative experiments on imprisoned people - and chickens

On the basis of the prison files from 1914 to 1964, Chernoh Bah is now reconstructing which experiments were once carried out on the prison area on which there are now hotels. A particularly perfidious example from the years before the Nazi war of extermination in Europe, when the division of people into higher and lower races prevailed:

"The researchers did experiments on individuals and then repeated them on rabbits, rats and chickens. They also did a study on chickens to find out what kind of training is better for prisoners who have no jobs. It was about the relationship between Diet and exercise in prison, which they studied by comparing humans to chickens. "

If their health was harmed, the descendants of those affected could theoretically go to court today. You could sue the UK in your home country or in Europe for violating ethical principles. But no one has ever done that. Most of them don't even know about the experiments, says Bah. He was the first to travel to Liverpool and open 21 boxes from Sierra Leone in the institute's basement. They were full of records of the prisoners' health, the outbreaks of illness in the prison, and the medication the colonial rulers had administered.

The boundary between acceptable and inadmissible experiments is not regulated

"At the international level, of course, there is a quorum that says you shouldn't harm people. But the question of experiments is not necessarily coded like a UN initiative for human rights. If someone experiments with someone else, that would be a kind of free one This category falls, but there is no explicit international rule that affects medical tests per se. "

Medical historian Edna Bonhomme believes that a consensus on what is an experiment and what is problematic is difficult to find internationally. She gives an example from Zimbabwe from the 1970s: At that time, the contraceptive Depo-Provera was clinically tested on women. Once approved, it was distributed by the colonial government. However, not on a voluntary basis:

"Farm owners have put pressure on women to take the pill. This has resulted in them often not knowing what the pill is doing to them. The example of a drug that is forcibly distributed to target black women on the African continent Preventing reproduction may not be so bad for some people, like there are too many people, but other people who think ahead would say that this is some kind of expanded attempt to force drugs on Africans.

Black and white children are vaccinated together - a scene with didactic intent (imago stock & people / CDC / Reuel Waldrop)

Vaccine skepticism also increased significantly among US African American women

During her research on the African continent, Edna Bonhomme had the impression that people as a whole recognize the value of Western medicine today. However, they reacted sensitively when pharmaceutical companies were involved, when they were not informed about side effects or when they were pressured to seek treatment. Then the feeling of being a plaything of the mighty would come back immediately.

This is not only true in Africa itself: According to a study by the Pew Research Center in September, only 32 percent of all African Americans in the United States would be vaccinated against Covid-19 - compared to 52 percent of whites. Although they are particularly likely to contract the coronavirus. The reasons they cited were systematic racism and abuse by black people during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. 399 African American land tenants were victims of an experiment by the US Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972. Without informed consent, without treatment, even when a healing method was already available. It will not be easy to restore trust, believes Bonhomme:

"People need to see that the world they live in is not anti-black. In the US context, that means it is difficult for some people to believe that an African American vaccination or vaccination test is just that Because they are disadvantaged in other areas. For people on the African continent, we could also say: Why can't Africans travel to Europe just as easily as Europeans to the African continent? Those are the things that people say If there is evidence that people are treated equally based on how border regimes, compensation, resources, power, and freedom of movement work, I think people trust science too. "

OvaHerero and Nama activists have protested several times in Germany for reparations (Rauten Strauch Joest / Joachim Zeller CC BY-ND 2.0)

Medicine atrocities in Africa are only gradually emerging

How many people have been victims of medicine in Africa over the past hundred years? There are no figures on the attempts on behalf of the colonial governments and how many people died from them. For years, the crimes of the Nazi era were in the foreground. Only now are the atrocities in the former colonies gradually entering the perpetrators' consciousness. For Edda Bonhomme and Chernoh Bah, reappraisal is about justice and knowledge.

"The history of medical and scientific progress is not free of problems and ongoing experimentation. To make sure that these experiences do not repeat themselves, we need to know what happened then."

The only descendants of African ethnic groups who fell victim to human experiments during colonial times and who ever went to court are the traditional Herero and Nama leaders from Namibia. In 2017 they sued Germany in the United States for the genocide committed by German troops in the early 20th century. The complaint also states that German doctors carried out medical experiments on living Herero prisoners in concentration camps. They are still demanding compensation for this today. The US court rejected the genocide lawsuit in 2019.