Taliban Attacks WHO Vaccinators: Thank you CIA

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Last year the CIA deployed Pakistani physician Shakeel Afridi to execute a phony hepatitis vaccine campaign in Abbottabad, hoping to extract blood samples from the children living inside a mysterious compound. American intelligence experts thought Osama bin Laden and his family might reside behind the compound walls.

As it turned out, the bin Laden family was, indeed, inside the compound and U.S. Special Forces captured or killed all of them. The vaccine ruse didn’t help, as Dr. Afridi never managed to gain access to the bin Laden youngsters. But recently a Pakistani court convicted Afridi of treason, and he is now serving a 33-year prison sentence.

But the fake vaccine effort has now put at least 300,000 children in Afghanistan and Pakistan in danger of contracting polio, led multiple imams and Taliban leaders to declare vaccines are CIA plots, and today prompted what appears to have been an assassination attempt against a World Health Organization immunization convoy, leaving two individuals alive, but shot. Injured are a WHO-employed physician from Ghana and his Pakistani driver.

Thank you CIA.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Dr. Orin Levine, a key figure in global vaccine efforts, and I wrote last year in the Washington Post that the “CIA’s plot — recruiting a Pakistani doctor to distribute hepatitis vaccines in Abbottabad this spring — destroyed credibility that wasn’t its to erode. It was the very trust that communities worldwide have in immunization programs that made vaccinations an appealing ruse. But intelligence officials imprudently burned bridges that took years for health workers to build.”

We added: “Few issues have proven as historically sensitive for global health practitioners as building trust around vaccines, especially for polio, within Muslim communities. About eight years ago in northern Nigeria, mass refusals of polio vaccines led to a resurgence of cases locally. The infection then spread beyond Nigeria’s borders. Distrust in the vaccine stemmed from Internet rumors that the vaccine was sterilizing people or spreading HIV; some of these claims were fueled by local religious leaders. It took years of negotiation and education for the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other health agencies to counter the conspiracy theories and regain trust about childhood vaccination.”

Our concerns were dismissed last summer by the Obama Administration, with unnamed spokespersons for the CIA insisting that ridding the world of the Al Qaeda leader was more than worth whatever “minor problems” might be experienced in vaccination efforts.

Since then, the “minor problems” have mounted steadily, and it is possible polio eradication will now form the fulcrum of general civil unrest and anti-government sentiments across the country. Clearly the assassination attempt against WHO’s physician – a Ghanaian doctor who had worked in the poorest neighborhood of Karachi for weeks, administering vaccines to slum children – signals a dramatic escalation in conflict and a major challenge to global efforts to eradicate the polio virus.

This week Pakistan started its National Immunization Days, featuring nationwide vaccination for polio, measles and other childhood infectious diseases. Shortly after the campaign started on Monday polio workers were beaten publicly by mobs in Islamabad. Pakistani authorities and officials in WHO headquarters in Geneva are at great pains to disconnect the attack, carried out allegedly by “two Afghan men,” from the three-day national polio effort, claiming the assassination attempt could have been coincidental.

But Pakistani media see a clear link between today’s shootings and a series of escalating anti-vaccination attacks. In addition to the beatings in Islamabad yesterday, another polio eradication team was fired upon in the southern town of Jacobabad, and the Taliban banned all immunizers from entering the northwestern region of the country, forbidding vaccination of 350,000 children.

The fight to eradicate polio is a long one, backed by Rotary Club members worldwide, the Bill and MelindaGates Foundation and the United Nations. In May, with the last cases of the childhood disease clustered in three countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria – officials said two barriers remained. First, the campaign is shy about $1 billion needed for its final thrust. The second obstacle has been suspicion among some Islamic leaders that vaccines are used by the CIA to inject sterilizing agents or HIV into Muslim children. Long ago a British journalist spawned some of the suspicion with an almost instantly debunked book that claimed the entire AIDS pandemic was caused by 1960s polio vaccination efforts in Congo. Years ago Nigerian religious leaders from the northern Muslim region of the country drew on that book, commanding mothers to refuse vaccination for their children. Years of hard work by Nigerian health officials, WHO, and prominent imamsmanaged to wear down the resistance to vaccination in that country. But the ideas and paranoia that sparked those concerns continued to bounce around Islamist web sites and literature.

After the bin Laden killing, the role played by Dr. Afridi was revealed by the London newspaper The Guardian, and slowly rage against vaccination rose within the Taliban and remaining Al Qaeda elements. Pakistani health authorities tried to counter the Islamist resistance with polio education and vaccination, but the credibility of their efforts was undermined by evidence of fraudulent immunization reporting to the WHO. Worse, authorities tried to force immunization, and jail parents that stopped vaccine workers, fueling antipathy further. And decades-old tensions between Pakistan and its nemesis, India, were resurrected after India eradicated polio from its country, but declared that its children were threatened with cross-border spread of the disease as long as Pakistan remained unable to carry out mass immunization. Such cross-border spread was responsible last year for bringing polio to China, and Beijing has been quick to join the chorus of Af/Pak neighbors worried about the deterioration of vaccine efforts.

In an interview this morning with the BBC Elias Drury, senior coordinator for polio eradication at the World Health Organization, said, “The impact is going to be serious if the ban is extended for a long time. We've been conducting campaigns in that area for a long time - this is the first campaign since the ban was announced.”

When Levine and I authored out criticism of the CIA’s ruse a year ago some critics charged that a small amount of suspicion of vaccines was merely collateral damage in the War on Terrorism. Al Qaeda attacks on the United States and its allies have over the last 15 years killed about 5,000 people. Today more than 300,000 children in Pakistan are at risk of dying or being permanently paralyzed by polio, and defeat of eradication efforts in that country could swiftly spawn outbreaks across the entire Indian Subcontinent and China.

Collateral damage?