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Polio: The Hidden Cost of the Hunt for Bin Laden

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 10, 2013

During the search for Osama bin Laden, the CIA suffered a lapse of judgment that continued last week to have tragic repercussions.

The mistake happened in March 2011 when CIA investigators set up a sham vaccination program in the Abbottabad neighborhood where they suspected the Al Qaida leader was in hiding.  The idea was to get DNA from the children in the bin Laden compound to see if it matched the DNA of a bin Laden sibling who had died in Boston.

As an inadvertent result, Muslim extremists regard any vaccination program as some kind of Imperialist plot, no matter that it actually protects the health of their children.  In  December, extremists executed nine polio vaccination campaign workers in Pakistan.  And last week, the same thing happened in Nigeria.  The victims in both cases were mostly women.

But we may all eventually be the victims.

There are windows of opportunity for eradicating epidemic diseases, and the dismaying thing is that these windows can close.  Tuberculosis was on the verge of eradication in the last decades of the twentieth century.  But the delayed and inadequate response to AIDS gave the disease fresh breeding ground, in the lungs of patients with impaired immune systems.  So tuberculosis is now resurgent, with 8.7 million new cases and 1.4 million deaths per year.

It’s increasingly likely the same will happen with polio.  The effort to eradicate the disease has reduced incidence of polio to just three countries–Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan–and the number of cases to just 200 a year worldwide.  But getting there costs $1 billion a year.  If the World Health Organization cannot keep up the pressure, then the computer models say there will be 200,000 cases 10 years from now.   “It’s either going to zero,” says a WHO analyst, “or it’s going to come all the way back.”

Given the devastation polio can cause, the CIA investigators hunting bin Laden may have cost us far more than they gained.

Here’s a report from The New York Times:

In a roundabout way, the C.I.A. has been blamed for the Pakistan killings. In its effort to track Osama bin Laden, the agency paid a Pakistani doctor to seek entry to Bin Laden’s compound on the pretext of vaccinating the children — presumably to get DNA samples as evidence that it was the right family. That enraged some Taliban factions in Pakistan, which outlawed vaccination in their areas and threatened vaccinators.

Nigerian police officials said the first shootings were of eight workers early in the morning at a clinic in the Tarauni neighborhood of Kano, the state capital; two or three died. A survivor said the two gunmen then set fire to a curtain, locked the doors and left.

“We summoned our courage and broke the door because we realized they wanted to burn us alive,” the survivor said from her bed at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital.

About an hour later, six men on three-wheeled motorcycles stormed a clinic in the Haye neighborhood, a few miles away. They killed seven women waiting to collect vaccine.

Ten years ago, Dr. Larson said, she joined a door-to-door vaccination drive in northern Nigeria as a Unicef communications officer, “and even then we were trying to calm rumors that the C.I.A. was involved,” she said. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars had convinced poor Muslims in many countries that Americans hated them, and some believed the American-made vaccine was a plot by Western drug companies and intelligence agencies.

Since the vaccine ruse in Pakistan, she said, “Frankly, now, I can’t go to them and say, ‘The C.I.A. isn’t involved.’ ”

3 Responses to “Polio: The Hidden Cost of the Hunt for Bin Laden”

  1. Even before the Bin Laden raid, there were numerous attacks on vaccination program workers. They were accused of secretly sterilizing children and administering shots containing pig blood. I don’t think the raid changed anything in Afghanistan or Pakistan, not to mention Nigeria.

    • Hi Vladimir. Here’s a similar exchange I had with someone (who still limps from polio) on Facebook. (I still think the CIA was flagrantly irresponsible on this point):

      Geoffrey C. Ward Dick. You’re right about this. But Muslim paranoia about the polio vaccine predates the Bin Laden business. Ten years ago it was already keeping poor Muslim kids from being vaccinated in Delhi. The vaccine was said to be a Hindu plot to keep them from reproducing. Religion is a wonderful thing.

      Richard Conniff Yes, agreed. And even apart from religion, people have had bizarre ideas about vaccination ever since Jenner invented the first one in the 1790s. The idea of being deliberately given a disease organism to protect your health is just unnerving and counterintuitive. It requires a massive dose of public education.

      Richard Conniff Also a lot of discretion on the part of people who ought to know better (the CIA) about not muddying the waters.

      • BTW, I am not sure TB eradication was ever a real possibility. AFIK, it is pretty much a zoontic disease in some places (i. e. Kazakhstan), where people mostly get it from domestic animals.

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