Vaccination drives, especially against crippling diseases such as polio, have been a cornerstone of global health policy for years. Intrepid workers travel into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in the world administering drops and shots to eradicate these insidious diseases.
However, in the past few years, workers have been put in acute danger thanks to a CIA program that used vaccination drives as a cover for espionage.
Violence against polio workers (the actual anti-polio workers) has escalated quickly. In some areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, vaccinations were outright banned, leading to outbreaks and death. In others, car bombs, murders and torture have led vaccinators to travel with armed security detail.
The case of Salma Farooqi highlights how tragic the situation has become. The 30-year-old health worker in Peshawar was kidnapped from her home in the middle of the night. Her husband and children were tied up at gunpoint as she was taken away. When her body was found, it had been tortured and shot repeatedly. While 30 of her colleagues have also been killed, this was the first time a vaccination worker was abducted from her own home.
A new promise, issued by the Obama administration on May 16th, states it will end the CIA involvement in vaccination drives. It was directed that, “The Agency make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers. Similarly the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs.”
The DNA mentioned in the statement was part of a large operational program in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Hepatitis B vaccination drives were used to collect genetic material in hopes of connecting those in Abbottabad to Osama bin Laden. The CIA’s reasoning was that if his relatives were in town, it was likely he was as well.
Headed by Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician, nurses did gain access to the compound where bin Laden was staying in Abbottabad. They vaccinated and obtained DNA from the children on the compound. However, it is not clear whether this DNA collection played a part in finding bin Laden.
As for the Pakistani doctor who headed the false vaccination program, he was picked up trying to flee the country after the bin Laden raid. Charged with treason, he has allegedly dealt with torture and harsh treatment in Pakistani prisons. Eventually treason was dropped, but a ‘tie’ to a terror group in Pakistan (the terror group has denied these ties) earned him a 33 year sentence. Those assisting Dr. Afridi, which consisted of about 15 male and female med students, were also picked up, although their whereabouts are currently unknown.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the USA and Pakistan underwent considerable strain as Pakistan cited unreasonable breaches to their sovereignty. The United States retaliated by threatening to cut aid.
It is under these tensions that polio vaccination workers must now operate. Some groups have defied the Taliban’s ban on polio vaccinations, sneaking their children to clandestine health workers. Others travel to areas no longer under control by these militant groups to get their children the health care they need.
According to the WHO, polio has seen a dramatic fall since the 1980s. The world is not terribly far from eradicating this awful disease completely, but the backlash in Central Asia is cause for concern. Now one of the only regions on earth where polio is endemic, the WHO reports it is a battle against time: “If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases.”
The abolition of CIA programs in vaccination drives is an important step towards global health initiatives. However, the damage to trust has already been done and it’s hard to say if their public statement will make a considerable impact on the security of health workers across the region, who live in fear as they work to save the lives of children.