The CIA's staging of a fake polio vaccination program in Pakistan in 2011, used by the US spy agency to gain intelligence as it circled in on Osama Bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad, is having serious and deadly consequences say health officials.
A series of nine murders targeting polio vaccination workers in the country in the last several days have forced UNICEF and the World Health Organization, the two international groups implementing the effort, to call a halt to the eradication program in Pakistan—one of only three countries in the world still battling the deadly disease.
Now, say critics, the effort to kill one man has made the eradication of polio more difficult than ever and health officials estimate that the suspension of such vaccinations can put the health of nearly a quarter million children at risk.
"Those killed or injured, many of whom are women, are among hundreds of thousands of heroes who work selflessly to eradicate polio and provide other health services to children in Pakistan," said the two groups in a statement. "Such attacks deprive children in Pakistan of their right to basic life-saving health interventions and place them at risk for a disease that causes lifelong disability."
The groups said new security measures would be taken, but that the violence and need to protect staff made the work impossible and dangerous under current conditions.
"Halting the campaign at this stage would create more problems as it's not a one-day phenomenon," said one provincial official, Javed Marwat. "If we stopped the campaign it would encourage the forces opposing the polio vaccination."
As Reuters reports:
Two more workers in a polio eradication campaign have been shot dead in Pakistan in the latest in a series of attacks that have partially halted the UN-backed global health campaign to stamp out the disease. A third health worker was seriously wounded.
In response to the violence, the United Nations in Pakistan pulled all staff involved in the immunization campaign off the streets, said a spokesman, Michael Coleman.
There were at least three separate attacks on Wednesday. In the north-western district of Charsadda, men on motorbikes shot dead a woman and her driver, police and health officials said.
Hours earlier, a male health worker was shot and badly wounded in the nearby provincial capital of Peshawar. He remains in a critical condition, said a doctor at Lady Reading hospital, where he is being treated.
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Four other women health workers were shot at but not hit in nearby Nowshera, said Jan Baz Afridi, deputy head of the expanded program on immunization.
Though no single group has come forward to take responsibility for the attack, it is widely known that elements of the Pakistan Taliban and other tribal groups have denounced the vaccination program as a front for CIA and espionage activities.
As Global Post reports:
The Taliban announced this year that it opposes polio vaccinations if the West is involved.
The Taliban issued its decree because the CIA, during its hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2011, collected DNA samples under the guise of polio vaccinations, CNN reported.
Aside from that, Islamist extremists in Pakistan claim that polio vaccines are part of a US conspiracy to render the people of Pakistan infertile, pointing to foreign NGOs that support polio eradication campaigns while also promoting reproductive health programs in the country.
But as The New Yorker's Michael Specter notes, the conspiracy theories aside, the concerns by Pakistanis -- militant or not -- have accurate and valid basis, given the fact of the CIA's highly maligned use of a vaccination program to provide cover for an international manhunt. Specter called the CIA's ploy a "stunning display of arrogance, stupidity, or both," before adding:
Pakistan’s attitude toward those who are associated with the C.I.A. has not exactly been a secret. After the raid on bin Laden’s compound, the doctor who tried to obtain the DNA was arrested and sentenced to thirty-three years in prison. I don’t mean to lay these crimes on anyone other than the murderers. But the sickness and death caused by a renewed polio epidemic in South Asia would make today’s tragedy seem small. Again, we should hold the killers responsible for this terrible reversal. But at least some of blame lies in the swamplands of Langley, Virginia.
And, as Glenn Greenwald illustrated earlier this year, the latest series of violence only confirms the predictable damage done by the CIA program:
What [the CIA's faux program] actually did was concoct a pretextual vaccination program, whereby Pakistani children would be injected with a single Hepatitis B vaccine, with the hope of gaining access to the Abbottabad house where the CIA believed bin Laden was located. The plan was that, under the ruse of vaccinating the children in that province, he would obtain DNA samples that could confirm the presence in the suspected house of the bin Laden family. But the vaccine program he was administering was fake: as Wired‘s public health reporter Maryn McKenna detailed, “since only one of three doses was delivered, the vaccination was effectively useless.” An on-the-ground Guardian investigation documented that ”while the vaccine doses themselves were genuine, the medical professionals involved were not following procedures. In an area called Nawa Sher, they did not return a month after the first dose to provide the required second batch. Instead, according to local officials and residents, the team moved on.”
That means that numerous Pakistani children who thought they were being vaccinated against Hepatitis B were in fact left exposed to the virus. Worse, international health workers have long faced serious problems in many parts of the world — including remote Muslim areas — in convincing people that the vaccines they want to give to their children are genuine rather than Western plots to harm them. These suspicions have prevented the eradication of polio and the containment of other preventable diseases in many areas, including in parts of Pakistan. This faux CIA vaccination program will, for obvious and entirely foreseeable reasons, significantly exacerbate that problem.