How The CIA’s Fake Vaccination Campaign Helped To Fuel A Resurgence of Polio in Pakistan

Back in November, The Higher Learning reported on how extremist islamic superstitions have contributed to a comeback of polio, especially in Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan, which has 61 of the 77 cases reported so far this year (though it’s estimated that the real number is closer to 100, since some people never report being sick).

Polio statistics for 2014. Click to enlarge (From the World Health Organization)
Polio statistics for 2014. Click to enlarge (From the World Health Organization)

For decades, vaccinators from all over the western world have been risking their lives to try and vaccinate children in these dangerous regions. In the past 20 months alone, at least 59 vaccinators and their security personnel have been murdered. The majority of these murders occurred in Pakistan.

One of the reasons for this dangerous and hostile environment is that extremist groups like the Taliban spread superstitions that the vaccinators are,

“un-Islamic or Western purveyors of poison meant to sterilize Muslim women.”

One cleric from the Pakistani city of Punjab went so far as to say that the mission of the vaccinators was a Western conspiracy, and that jihad would be launched against polio vaccination teams.

Vaccination workers shout slogans denouncing the murders of 3 colleagues while demonstrating in Islamabad

Unfortunately, it seems like the CIA has been giving some legitimacy to these claims of conspiracy. Back in early 2011, when trying to local Osam Bin Laden, the agency tracked a courier to his compound in Abbottabad. They were unsure, however, if Bin Laden was actually there or not.

So, they hired a local doctor to lead a fake vaccination campaign, hoping to get inside the compound under the guise of vaccinating Bin Laden’s many children. The CIA hoped that during these fake vaccinations, the doctor could collect a DNA sample that they could match to Bin Laden’s to confirm he was there.

Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad (Photo: AFP)

The doctor, Shakil Afridi, put up flyers all over the city advertising a vaccination drive that would offer free immunization for hepatitis B. He also bypassed health management officials and directly recruited low-level health workers, who, oblivious as to the Bin Laden connection, were eager to take the generous sum he offered.

Eventually, Afridi was able to get one of his nurses into the compound. According to the Guardian, he gave the nurse a handbag which contained some sort of electronic device and waited for her outside.

Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA during the campaign

It is unclear what that device was or whether she planted it in the compound somewhere, but based off the information available, it seems that the operation was unsuccessful in collecting a DNA sample.

Despite this failure, U.S. special forces were still able to take out Bin Laden shortly thereafter on May 2, 2011. Afridi is currently serving 33 years in Pakistani prison for secretly aiding American intelligence agents.

On Monday, the CIA officially announced that they would no longer be carrying out any false vaccination operations. Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, wrote the following in a letter sent to the deans of 12 public health:

“I wanted to inform you that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directed in August 2013 that the agency make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers.

Similarly, the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs. This CIA policy applies worldwide and to U.S. and non-U.S. persons alike.”

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