Twelve of the deans leading the nation’s top public health schools have written to President Barack Obama to condemn the use of public health programs as cover for covert activities.
In 2011, it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency utilized a vaccination program as cover to confirm the whereabouts of Osama bin Ladin in Abottabad, Pakistan. Since then, health workers have been targeted for violence throughout the country, with over a dozen murdered in the past three weeks alone. The upswing in violence caused the United Nations to suspend their vaccine work in December, while the covert operation itself led the Pakistani government to kick out the NGO Save the Children in Sept. 2012.
In the course of the one-page letter, the deans or such schools as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and UCLA take the President and the administration to task for their role in the spreading mistrust of health workers, and close with an impassioned plea to prevent further uses of health programs for intelligence-gathering:
Independent of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, contaminating humanitarian and public health programs with covert activities threatens the present participants and future potential of much of what we undertake internationally to improve health and provide humanitarian assistance. As public health academic leaders, we hereby urge you to assure the public that this type of practice will not be repeated.
International public health work builds peace and is one of the most constructive means by which our past, present, and future public health students can pursue a life of fulfillment and service. Please do not allow that outlet of common good to be closed to them because of political and/or security interests that ignore the type of unintended negative public health impacts we are witnessing in Pakistan.
The letter specifically refers to a recent spike in treatable diseases run rampant in Pakistan, following the surge in suspicion towards vaccination programs and the workers who administer them. In particular, have measles have jumped from 4,000 in 2011 to 14,000 in 2012. Likewise, Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio remains endemic, a statistic that will be unlikely to change should attacks on health workers continue.