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Political Dictionary of the History of Health

Bafia, 1928

The events that took place in the district of Bafia in 1928, illustrate the political stakes of vaccine resistance in the colonial world.Roughly translated : « Sleepers of the fat kind in Cameroon taken by the Jamot Enterprise » in « The sleeping sickness », Paris, Editions E. P. F., 1927, fig 30. BIUM
The events that took place in the district of Bafia in 1928, illustrate the political stakes of vaccine resistance in the colonial world.


    In the 1920s, Bafia is one of the subdivisions of a French colony, Cameroon. Freshly colonized, Cameroon becomes a new source of income for France. By giving exploitation shares to French companies that wish to exploit the Cameroon resources, such as the Financial Society of Rubber (Société Financière des Caoutchoucs), France tries to keep its new colonies under control. The FSR is given strips of land on which it will extract rubber, so it imposes to the indigenous people the construction of roads that will allow the big neighbouring cities to be linked to each other. The Yambassa people are very present in the Mbam region,  which is situated in the Bafia district and thus, constitutes the main workforce that extracts rubber. The fact that the Bafia district is now exploited by France for its profits favours the proliferation of mosquitoes. With them, the trypanosomiasis or «sleeping sickness» will appear and will be transmitted faster, which will raise the mortality rate exponentially in all rubber exploitations, among the Yambassa people and in all the subdivisions of the Mbam region. 


    From the 1920s to the 1960s, the French colonies in Africa try to obtain their independence through resistance to the colonial system. For the French administration, developing a local health system contributes to the regaining of control of the rebellious populations. The diffusion of a vaccine against sleeping sickness is, just like the general help granted to the colonies, a way for the Colonial Empires to have power over the indigenous people. Logically, they gather resources, start competing with each other and lead experiments with new drugs in their colonies. The goal here is political: the living conditions in the colonies must be improved so that the local economy can take off. 


    In the 1920s, Eugène Jamot, a French colonial physician who is specialized in tropical medicine, is sent on a mission in Cameroon to stop the propagation of the sleeping sickness. From 1913 to 1940, Jamot studies medicine at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he studies the big African epidemics and specializes in questions related to sleeping sickness. At the end of his studies, he is appointed assistant director at the Pasteur Institute in Brazzaville, where he will move in 1916. There, he draws the attention of the public authorities to the important growth of the sleeping sickness, so much, that a Hygiene Counsel is summoned in Brazzaville in order to elaborate a vaccination protocol. The African territory called « Oubangui-Chari » is chosen as the region for the experiment. In 1917, as the results from the experiments are satisfactory, the « Ministerial Commission » presided by French physician general Gouzien decides on the generalization of the method. Colonial physician Jamot is granted full powers to set up a health system built on the Prophylaxis Principle in the Cameroon colony, and more particularly in the Bafia district, which is seriously threatened by the sickness. His method for prophylaxis is a tool for population control, based on preventing the spreading of the sickness in the already-existing clusters, called « virus tanks ». Effectively, it takes the form of a population census, the administration of a small dose of the vaccine to the colonized population and recurring visits. 


    The vaccination campaign works for a time. Jamot thus delegates to French physician  Henry-Matthieu Monier the responsibility for the Bafia district. Jamot's subordinate takes the initiative to double the dose of vaccine injected to those who are in an advanced state of sleeping sickness without telling his superior. Here again, the results are satisfactory, which leads to Monier injecting all of his patients a double dose of the vaccine. Over time, many cases of blindness were identified among Monier's patients, without him ever reporting what is happening to his superiors or changing his methods. The indigenous populations grow concerned, as they are afraid of becoming blind because of the vaccine, and finally, the news reaches Jamot who grows concerned too. However, whether it be the risks linked to the vaccine or the ensuing revolts, everything about the case will be left unspoken to limit the negative impact the case would have on other countries and France's general opinion of Science.


    What rarely appears in the reports is the fact that Aboriginal people are far from having always accepted methods of the Colonial Empire for combating sleeping sickness. The fight led to passive forms of resistance such as not coming to the vaccinations, but also active forms like revolts. The Cameroonian population will rebel against the French oppressor accused of poisoning it through dangerous therapeutic experiments, because, blindness is not a symptom of sleeping sickness. The symptoms include fever, sleepiness and, in a lot of cases, death. This is why the Cameroonian will link the blindness to the vaccine rather than with the disease it should prevent. Like the incident in Bafia, these revolts foretell the decolonization movements undertaken by the African colonies as soon as 1940.  

Translation : Axel Fromont.

Follow the reading on the dictionnary : Excess mortality in psychiatric hospitals - Mecca

Laure Deslandes - Le Mans Université

Références :

BADO, Jean-Paul, Eugène Jamot 1879-1937. Le médecin de la maladie du sommeil ou trypanosomiase, Paris, Editions Karthala, 2011.

LACHENAL, Guillaume, Le médicament qui devait sauver l’Afrique. Un scandale pharmaceutiques aux colonies, La Découverte", collection : Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2014.

To quote this paper : Laure Deslandes, "Bafia 1928"in Hervé Guillemain (ed.), DicoPolHiS, Le Mans Université, 2021.

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