Eradicating a Disease Vs. Eradicating a Terrorist

The Guardian reports that the CIA concocted a fake vaccination campaign to gather intelligence on Osama Bin Laden near his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The doctor went to Abbottabad in March, saying he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers, who took part in the operation without knowing about the connection to Bin Laden. Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children.

Afridi had posters for the vaccination programme put up around Abbottabad, featuring a vaccine made by Amson, a medicine manufacturer based on the outskirts of Islamabad.

In March health workers administered the vaccine in a poor neighbourhood on the edge of Abbottabad called Nawa Sher. The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given in three doses, the second a month after the first. But in April, instead of administering the second dose in Nawa Sher, the doctor returned to Abbottabad and moved the nurses on to Bilal Town, the suburb where Bin Laden lived.

What is most concerning to me about this ruse is the wider context in which this operation was conducted. Yes, I am glad that Bin Laden is no longer of this earth, but I wonder how many parents in Pakistan will now refuse to get their children vaccinated–particularly against polio?

Let me explain.

Polio is on the cusp of eradication. In 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched, there were an estimated 300,000 cases of polio worldwide. Last year, there were fewer than 2,000.  Polio has very nearly been wiped off the face of the earth, but it persists in four countries that are still considered endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. In India and Nigeria, Polio is only endemic in regions of the country that are a majority Muslim (and rural).

One of the great barriers to vaccination campaigns in these countries has been a stubbornly persistent rumor that the polio vaccine is a western plot to sterilize Muslim children. In 2007, the World Health Organization attributed a jump in the number of polio cases in Pakistan to a misinformation campaign by clerics on precisely this point.  From a 2007 article in The Guardian:

The parents of 24,000 children in northern Pakistan refused to allow health workers to administer polio vaccinations last month, mostly due to rumours that the harmless vaccine was an American plot to sterilise innocent Muslim children.

The disinformation – spread by extremist clerics using mosque loudspeakers and illegal radio stations, and by word of mouth – has caused a sharp jump in polio cases in Pakistan and hit global efforts to eradicate the debilitating disease.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recorded 39 cases of polio in Pakistan in 2006, up from 28 in 2005. The disease is concentrated in North-West Frontier Province, where 60% of the refusals were attributed to “religious reasons”.

“It was very striking. There was a lot of anti-American propaganda as well as some misconceptions about sterilisation,” said Dr Sarfaraz Afridi, a campaign manager with the WHO in Peshawar.

The scaremongering and appeals to Islam echoed a similar campaign in the Nigerian state of Kano in 2003, where the disease then spread to 12 polio-free countries over the following 18 months. Pakistan is one of just four countries where polio remains endemic. The others are Nigeria, India and Afghanistan.

To be sure, several responsible religious leaders are working to reverse these misconceptions. Since 2009, the Saudi government has administered a dose of the oral polio vaccine to every visitor who wishes to enter Mecca during the Hajj.  Still, this CIA ruse seems confirmed all the darkest fears that vaccination campaigns–particularly against polio–are part of some insidious American plot.