Chris Oyakhilome: Nigerian pastor pushing malaria vaccine conspiracy theories

  • By Chiagozie Nwonwu, Fauziyya Tukur and Olaronke Alo
  • BBC Global Disinformation Team

Image source, Pastor Chris Online

Wearing his signature closed-collar suit, Pastor Chris Oyakhilome looked directly into the camera, declaring that “there has never been any proof that vaccines have ever worked.”

Everyone was “lied” to about vaccination, he said in the sermon broadcast on his church’s YouTube channel in February.

Known as “Pastor Chris”, this sixty-year-old is one of the best-known evangelical preachers in Africa.

The BBC examined dozens of his sermons from 2023 and 2024 and found that he broadcast anti-vaccine messages to his supporters, specifically targeting the new malaria vaccine as it is distributed in African countries.

Malaria is a huge problem in Africa. About 95% of malaria-related deaths occurred on the continent in 2022, with children under five accounting for about 80% of deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Over the past six months, Pastor Oyakhilome’s company has also produced at least five 20-minute anti-vaccine documentaries broadcast during church services or shared on its video streaming platform, circumventing social media companies’ policies against anti-vaccine content.

Last year’s announcement of the rollout of a malaria vaccine – after decades of testing – was hailed by experts as a major achievement that could save tens of thousands of lives.

According to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, successful vaccination pilot campaigns since 2019 in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi have led to a 13% drop in deaths among children of eligible age.

But medical experts fear the influential pastor’s wide-ranging sermons could have a negative impact on vaccination in Africa.

In August last year, he warned in a sermon of “an evil agenda that has been brewing for a long time.”

He then spread a popular conspiracy theory in the anti-vaccine community that vaccines were a way to “depopulate the world.”

He also incorrectly stated that “malaria has never been a problem for Africans.”

Legend, Kenya participated in 2022 malaria vaccine pilot study

“The spread of misinformation about vaccines, particularly from influential figures such as religious leaders, can help perpetuate myths and misconceptions, further fueling vaccine hesitancy.

“This can have devastating public health consequences, particularly in the WHO African region, where vaccine-preventable diseases are common,” a WHO spokesperson said.

Pastor Oyakhilome’s remarks were included among misinformation trends “to watch” ahead of the malaria vaccine rollout in a report released in March by the WHO-backed African Infodemic Response Alliance.

We asked the pastor about his anti-vaccination statements via his company and church emails. We did not receive a response.

He founded Christ Embassy Church in Lagos, Nigeria’s main city, in the 1990s and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers across the world.

In 2011, he was featured in Forbes magazine as one of Nigeria’s richest pastors, with an estimated net worth of $30 million to $50 million (£24 million to £40 million).

According to the magazine, the pastor’s diverse business interests included newspapers, magazines, a local television station, a record label, satellite television, hotels and extensive real estate.

His empire, named LoveWorld Inc, has since grown. It now includes a streaming service, a messaging app downloaded more than a million times from the Google App Store and a microfinance bank.

Once a week, Pastor Oyakhilome preaches at the church’s huge campground in Asese, along the Lagos-Ibadan highway.

When the BBC visited the church last November, hundreds of pastors of different nationalities filled the auditorium for an annual conference. Flags of dozens of countries were displayed inside.

Its “massive online teachings and healing services” attract “7 billion people” worldwide, according to the Christ Embassy website – which is highly unlikely given that the planet’s population is estimated at eight billion.

Winnifred Ikhianosin, 25, is a regular at the church. She told the BBC she refused to be vaccinated.

“The man of God told us,” she said. “And I did my research too.”

According to Ada Umenwaliri, associate director of the Center for African Studies at the University of North Carolina, based in the United States, Pastor Oyakhilome has “a stronghold over his disciples who admire him”.

“Pastors and religious leaders will always play an important role in the choices their congregants make,” she added.

But poverty and lack of health infrastructure in Africa could allow churches to have greater control over the population when it comes to vaccinations, she said.

In an article published last year on the Nigerian news site The Cable, writer Julius Ogunro, who attended the pastor’s church for more than a decade, said: “We must ring the bell alarm now. is potentially dangerous and has nothing to do with the Christian faith. »

One name is frequently repeated by Pastor Oyakhilome: Bill Gates. The billionaire is one of the biggest supporters of the malaria vaccine, but he has also been the subject of vaccination conspiracy theories for years.

Legend, Bill Gates was the target of criticism from Pastor Chris Oyakhilome

In a sermon in August 2023, the pastor played an excerpt from a TED talk that Bill Gates gave in 2010 as an example of “those who have an agenda to depopulate the world.”

In a speech on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Mr Gates said: “First, we have the population. The world today has 6.8 billion inhabitants. This could reach around nine billion. Now, if we do a really good job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could reduce that number by maybe 10 or 15%. »

His statement was taken out of context by Pastor Oyakhilome. Mr. Gates did not advocate global depopulation.

He has clarified in the past that he views population growth and improved health as complementary: “When health improves, families choose to have fewer children.”

Mr. Oyakhilome also said that the Global Mosquito Program facility in Colombia belonged to the Gates Foundation, accusing it of producing genetically modified mosquitoes as part of a depopulation strategy.

The mosquito factory, created to reduce the ability of mosquitoes to transmit viruses, is owned by a group of non-profit companies owned by Monash University in Australia, and stressed that its method does not involve the use of genetically modified organisms.

Pastor Oyakhilome is no stranger to anti-vaccine misinformation. Recently, it has also targeted the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, intended to protect women against cervical cancer.

“They have something else up their sleeve. It’s not about cancer,” he declared during an intervention broadcast on September 2, 2023.

Nigeria launched a mass vaccination campaign for girls in October 2023 in a bid to significantly reduce cervical cancer rates.

The disease kills more than 8,000 women in Nigeria every year. In 2021, a major study funded by Cancer Research UK found that the HPV vaccine reduced cases of cervical cancer by almost 90%.

In the past, Pastor Oyakhilome has made many unfounded claims regarding tetanus shots, polio vaccines and other childhood vaccinations.

The pastor also falsely stated that the messenger RNA vaccine alters DNA.

But the vaccine does not change people’s DNA. It is part of the genetic material of a virus – or messenger RNA – to allow the immune system to learn to recognize it and produce antibodies.

During the Covid pandemic, Pastor Oyakhilome’s church was fined £125,000 ($155,000) by UK media regulator Ofcom.

He said his Loveworld channel, broadcast in the UK, had broadcast “misleading and potentially dangerous statements about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines”.

Mr Ogunro, the writer who left the church, said he was worried about the pastor’s influence.

“His claims about vaccination scare me. We need to find a way to regulate preachers like him.”

News Source :
Gn Health

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