The Needle and the Damage Done

The Obama administration says it is finally —  mercifully — no longer permitting its intelligence agencies from using vaccine campaigns as a ruse to collect intelligence. The decision was made after public outcry from health institutions who say that the fake Hepatitis campaign used to gain evidence of Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts has caused significant harm to global public health, including the fight against polio.

Alas, the damage has already been done.

Dozens of polio workers have been killed in Pakistan over the last two years. And these attacks are becoming more audacious. In some places, health workers have to have a police escort to deliver polio drops to children.  After years of decline, polio infections are now on the increase — thanks largely due to a spike in infections in Pakistan. The World Health Organization declared a global polio emergency this month because rates of infection are 60% higher this year over last. In total, there have been 77 confirmed cases of polio so far this year compared to 33 cases this time last year. Of those 77 cases 61 are in  Pakistan.

Pakistan is one of three countries in which polio remains endemic. Afghanistan and Nigeria are the other two. Even before word of the CIA’s ruse broke, vaccinators in these places had to combat rumors that the polio vaccine was some sort of western plot to sterilize Muslim children. (To its great credit, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of combating these rumors, but they still persist).

It may be hard to draw a straight line between the CIA’s intelligence gathering activities and the declaration of a global polio emergency last month. But there is no doubt significant fallout and collateral damage resulted from the CIA’s decision to use a vaccine campaign to collect intelligence.  The Obama administration’s decision to formally end this practice is certainly welcome–I just fear it may be too late.


Image credit: Global Polio Eradication Initiative