How the US Endangered Health Workers and Global Efforts to Eradicate Polio

Back in 2010, Osama Bin Laden was still somewhere in the Middle East, eluding the US military. His existence seemed to delegitimize the previous years of war and military action in the region.

Ok, so there were no WMD’s. But there was Bin Laden, and he was the next best thing.

In their narrow-minded focus to capture this man, the CIA concocted an intelligence gathering scheme that put health workers and Pakistani children at risk for years, maybe decades, to come.

The CIA devised a vaccination scam in Pakistan using health workers.

They hired a Pakistani doctor and (it seems from the articles) linked their operatives to Save the Children. They sent workers out to give injections to vaccinate against Hepatitis B.

But really… they were collecting DNA in an effort to find his family.

The plan failed.

They didn’t catch Bin Laden this way, and no one even got vaccinated.

However, the US was successful in stoking mistrust of public health workers and Western medicine. Since then, health workers have been turned away—or even greeted with violence—by locals.

This article from the BBC in April 2016 describes the latest attack on Pakistani health workers who are vaccinating against polio.

And it’s women and children who are the most in danger.

In Pakistan, public health workers who go from door-to-door delivering vaccinations are often women. Men wouldn’t be allowed access to the females in the household. And it’s children under 5 who are most at risk for contracting polio.

The CIA’s methods were widely criticized since it’s clear that they put generations of innocent people at risk. They have since promised not to use a vaccination ruse again.

Humanitarians work within their own set of ethical guidelines and principles, one of which is neutrality.

This means that humanitarians will not side with a particular government or political interest. Of course, it’s not enough to say you are neutral—you have to prove it over time.

The US government and the CIA put humanitarians and medically vulnerable populations at risk by posing as humanitarians, gaining access by exploiting their track record of ethically principled work, and then violating those same principles for military gain.

All of this reminds me of Medicins Sans Frontieres’ latest campaign #evenwarhasrules.

This campaign was begun after the US knowingly bombed an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

More on that one later….

The National Geographic has a fantastic 4-part article series on the event, the Pakistani doctor who was involved, the CIA’s maybe infiltration of Save the Children, and the repercussions for health workers and patients.

PART 1: “How the bin Laden Raid Put Vaccinators Under the Gun in Pakistan,” by Tim McGirk for National Geographic. February 25, 2015

PART 2: “He Led the CIA to bin Laden—and Unwittingly Fueled a Vaccine Backlash,” By Alexander Mullaney & Syeda Amna Hassan for National Geographic. February 27, 2015

PART 3: “Taliban Assassins Target Pakistan’s Polio Vaccinators,” by Tim McGirk for National Geographic. March 3, 2015

PART 4: “Fighting Polio Amid the Chaos of Syria’s Civil War,” by Jason Motlagh for National Geographic. March 5, 2015



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