CIA Stops Using Vaccination Drives as Fronts, but Is It Too Late?

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.



Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm3 years ago

I agree Eric. And they are making things worse for us instead of better. No one trusts us at all anymore and everhy case like this creates more and more distrust. Our government is even having hard time sticking p for Halth worker and "social" workers teachers etc that are sent over there. Our own government doesnt know if they are CIA Plants or not. This has to be brought back under control.
I jsut dont know you do you can do it anymore. They are an entity unto themesleves now.

Eric Lees
Eric Lees3 years ago

The CIA is clearly out of control. Like Anne said, who will be brought to justice for these crimes? The CIA has been creating more problems than they solve, even they realize that 9/11 was blowback caused by their intervention. They have become a secret branch oh government operating outside o Congressional oversite. They even have their own funding such as drugs from Afganistan.

Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm3 years ago

THis does far more harm than good for any good will we hope to build or any true medical help we would like to give. Soon we wont be able to ehlp anyone at all because they will automatically suspect of .

Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga3 years ago


Teresa W.
Teresa W3 years ago

Anne M.
anne M4 years ago

And why exactly should anybody believe these statements made by the US? Incidentally, why was nobody tried and convicted for creating this problem? And for that matter, when will the US extradite to Italy the CIA members who were convicted of kidnapping there? And while we're at it, when will these drone operators get convicted of murder whenever they kill innocent bystanders? Again, the US talks up a storm but keeps committing one crime after another with impunity while sitting in judgment over everybody else.

Carol P.
Carol P4 years ago

Though I have to laugh when I consider the number of things that spies (from any country) do that are sooooooo much worse than giving out vaccines, I think this sort of perception problem can apply in any country, and not just related to spies. For instance, the "Machine Gun Preacher", certainly doesn't help aid organizations do their jobs.

Rather than send westerners into foreign countries for any type of program, from vaccinations to protection of endangered species, it would be a lot more effective if programs focused on educating and empowering locals to start their own organizations and carry out their own programs.

Glenda L.
Glenda L4 years ago

They should have known better.

Faris M.
Faris M.4 years ago

Nudge nudge wink wink.