Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Smallpox Eradication/Measles Control in Equatorial Guinea: "One Wrong Move and You're Dead"

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Smallpox Eradication/Measles Control in Equatorial Guinea: "One Wrong Move and You're Dead"

Article excerpt

By 1969, Equatorial Guinea - which had achieved independence on October 12, 1968 - had already turned into a police state; thousands of refugees were fleeing the terror, as it came to be called. Arbitrary arrest and torture were common. "Basic services such as water, education, and sanitation took a back seat to politics."1 This situation posed an exceptional obstacle to the United Nations Smallpox Eradication/Measles Control Program, which had first been brought to West Africa in 1966, and which would administer over 100 million vaccinations by 1971. The vaccination program operated on a theory called "herd immunity."2 Drop a smallpox carrier into a place where no one is vaccinated, and smallpox spreads. Drop a carrier into a population with immunity, and the contagion stops dead in its tracks. So the program (based in the city of Kano, in northern Nigeria) divided Africans into two groups, the immune and the "susceptible." Mass vaccinations came first in order to create a barrier of immunity. This was the part of the program covered by newspapers and adored by politicians. The difficult part, to identify and vaccinate the susceptible persons, did not make the front page. Within this category were nomad traders, but also refugee populations, escaping famine, war, or the kind of civil strife which was rampant in Equatorial Guinea.

If the vaccination program could not operate in Equatorial Guinea, the global effort to wipe out smallpox would be undermined. Smallpox might go to ground and return a generation later with a vengeance. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had to take the risk. Someone had to make the program work in Equatorial Guinea. Standard operating procedure for the CDC was to look in the region for an operations officer. Carl Bloeser, Operations Officer in Kano, was winding up the project there, and seemed the best candidate for this extraordinarily demanding task; he was even fluent in Spanish, a rare find in Anglophone and Francophone Africa. Service in Equatorial Guinea required a conscious decision to expose oneself and one's family to the terror. "However chaotic the Nigerian civil war was, the situation in Equatorial Guinea was far worse."3 The task facing Bloeser, when he decided to embrace the challenge, was as frighteningly complex as it would have been to inoculate the population of the Belgian Congo in the midst of that country's crisis of 1960. Now, at the end of the decade, armed groups of youth - the Juventudes de Macías - were attacking Spaniards. Equatorial Guiñean soldiers were facing off the few members of the Guardia Civil that had remained behind to safeguard the Spanish Embassy and consular offices. In the end, "eight Spanish warships arrived to evacuate the Spanish population."4 There were also suspected "susceptible" populations in remote locations on the mainland, in Rio Muni. If the reports received were true, such an area would be nearly impossible to immunize. Even getting to Equatorial Guinea's capital - Santa Isabel (now Malabo) - was hazardous. The fleet of the world's newest airline, LAGE (Líneas Aéreas de Guinea Ecuatorial), comprised two Convair 440s, donated by the Spanish.5 The trip from Douala (Cameroon), to the capital might mean a journey through sudden unpredictable storms; wind and rain, gusting off Mount Cameroon, often buffeted the Convairs. One pastime among the remaining US expatriate community was to gather at the airport when the weekly LAGE flight came in. They would watch passengers disembark, battered by the weather, and guess how long each would stay in Guinea.

Every night Carl Bloeser locked himself into the duplex where he lived, across from the LAGE pilot quarters. Equatorial Guinea had become a place of perpetual intrigue, insecurity, and violence. There was a six o'clock curfew; the lights went out at eight. Sometimes - on a beautiful, sultry, night - he heard screaming. It went on all night. In the morning he would come out and see what had been done. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.