How The CIA May Have Undermined Polio Treatment In Pakistan

Child receiving polio drops in Pakistan

On Tuesday, a coordinated attack in Pakistan left four female health workers dead on the streets of Karachi, a major port city. In the city of Peshawar, another two aid workers were gunned down. And on Wednesday, another two people were killed and another was wounded in Peshawar — leaving many wondering if a program spearheaded by the Central Intelligence Agency to capture Osama bin Laden could be a contributing factor in all the violence.

The four workers killed in Karachi were all part of a program by the Pakistani government to vaccinate children against polio. Pakistan is one of the last countries where polio remains endemic, and a conference that opened on Wednesday was meant to highlight the country’s successes in combating the diseases over the past year. Cases dropped from a staggering 173 in 2011 to only 56 so far in 2012, in large part due to a huge public health effort from the government, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations.

That progress is now at risk, as the United Nations announced that World Health Organization and UNICEF employees on the ground in Pakistan were suspending their work due to the current violence. No group has officially taken credit for the attacks, but police have said that at least two of the incidents in Peshawar were carried out by members of the Pakistani Taliban. While officially having denied involvement, the Pakistani Taliban has been outspoken about their dislike of the Western-backed vaccination program.

Part of the Taliban’s opposition is due to the controversial way that the CIA sought intelligence on bin Laden’s presence in the Pakistani city of Abbotabad. In 2011, the Guardian revealed details about the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination program to collect “DNA from any of the Bin Laden children in the compound [which] could be compared with a sample from his sister, who died in Boston in 2010, to provide evidence that the family was present.” Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi was jailed by the government earlier this year on charges of treason for his part in the deception.

In 2011, shortly after details of the ruse became clear, global health blogger Chris Albon noted the potential backlash that could result from the CIA program:

Insecurity has a serious negative effect on health care in rural communities. The greater the personal risks, the greater the appeal for both national and international health workers to stay within the safety of major cities, venturing out only in large convoys. This so-called “bunkerization” diminishes the ability of health campaigns to target rural communities — often those most in need of primary health care. The best way to overcome bunkerization is through building relationships with communities and local elites, allowing for the free movement of health workers in a region — exactly the kind of thing undermined by the CIA’s apparent operation.

And that’s what appears to be playing out now in Pakistan. While the DNA obtained in the CIA’s covert operation did in fact help prove that bin Laden was present, the effects of the CIA’s actions may have hindered the legitimate polio vaccination program in the country.