Since the global anti-polio campaign was launched in 1988, the number of polio cases has dropped by more than 99 percent. As of now, only Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan still suffer from the spread of polio. Supporters of the anti-polio campaign estimated that the elimination of polio would produce a net benefit of $40 billion — $50 billion by 2035. However, the global anti-polio campaign has recently been complicated by the scandal that the CIA ran an operation to verify Osama bin Laden’s location by gathering DNA samples through a false-flag hepatitis B vaccination program. This incident also further complicates the already strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship after it was uncovered that a Washington nonprofit funnels money from Pakistan’s spy agency to lobby Congress on Kashmir.
Resistance to vaccination gained much momentum in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror. In Nigeria and Pakistan, at least, Muslim clerics have taken on roles to spread rumors that America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of a wider war on Islam. In 2003, religious leaders in Nigeria led the resistance to vaccination campaigns by spreading rumors that the shots were in fact sterilization drugs, part of a Western conspiracy to reduce African birthrates. In 2007, Taliban clerics in Pakistan also joined the anti-vaccination campaigns. Resistance also developed in extremely poor areas in Uttar Pradesh in India. It took a tremendous effort from the World Health Organization to reach out to religious authorities to dismiss these misconceptions.
And now these efforts are jeopardized by the CIA’s polio vaccine plot in Pakistan.
According to a Guardian report, the CIA worked with Shakil Afridi, a surgeon in Khyber Agency—a tribal agency that borders Afghanistan to the east—to lure families in for hepatitis B vaccinations. In addition to giving the shots, the medical team collected DNA from the blood of the patients. To make the vaccine drive seem less suspicious, Afridi even started in a poorer part of town before moving to Abbottabad.
The vaccination plan was conceived after American intelligence officers tracked an al-Qaeda courier…to what turned out to be bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound last summer.
The agency…wanted confirmation that bin Laden was there before mounting a risky operation inside another country. DNA from any of the Bin Laden children in the compound could be compared with a sample from his sister, who died in Boston in 2010, to provide evidence that the family was present.
According to The Washington Post, American officials are defending this operation, not denying it. An unnamed senior U.S. official was quoted:
People need to put this into some perspective. The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world’s top terrorist, and nothing else. If the United States hadn’t shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn’t used all tools at its disposal to find bin Laden.
There have been mixed reactions to the CIA’s vaccine plot and Pakistan’s growing domestic resistance to polio vaccination that may prompt ripple effects in the Muslim world. Doctors Without Borders, for instance, condemned the “use of medical aid for military objectives.” As the organization’s president Unni Karunakara said on July 14, “Whether the story is true or not, the mere suggestion that the provision of medical care was carried out under false pretences damages public perception of the true purpose of medical action. With all populations in crisis, it is challenging enough for health agencies and humanitarian aid workers to gain access to, and the trust of, communities, especially populations already skeptical of the motives of any outside assistance.” He went on to criticize the CIA: “Deceptive use of medical care also endangers those who provide legitimate and essential health services. Furthermore, carrying out an act of no therapeutic or preventative benefit purely for military or intelligence purposes violates medical ethics, which require acting solely on the needs of patients and doing no harm.”
Walt Orenstein, polio director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is concerned that “if we fail, if we take the pressure off, we will see a major resurgence [in polio cases].”
The vaccine plot, despite the success of the bin Laden mission overall, may yield more losses than gains in the long run. Vaccination campaigns must reach virtually 100 percent of a population to prevent pockets of resistance from emerging. To achieve this, public trust is immensely important to make healthy people agree to preventative medicine treatment. What further complicates the matter is that Pakistan recently dissolved its Ministry of Health, leaving international health programs to negotiate directly with local leaders about disease prevention. The CIA injudiciously burned the bridges that took many years to build, and this time it may take a longer time to repair.
Shiran Shen, a senior honors political science student at Swarthmore College, works as a research intern at the Foreign Policy In Focus program.