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Inside the CIA's Role in Pakistan's Polio Outbreak

Vaccinations have been banned after the CIA searched for bin Laden with phony doctors. Now polio is primed for a comeback.
Oral polio vaccine being delivered in India, via Wikimedia Commons.

Whether the connection is meaningful or not, the anti-vaccine people share their stance with Taliban warlords.

Pakistan is the only country in Asia with confirmed Wild Polio Virus type 3, and along with neighboring Afghanistan and Nigeria is one of three countries where polio is still endemic. The country has been working to eradicate polio since 1988, and making progress. Then, in 2012, the efforts hit a major roadblock.


A local warlord banned vaccinations after Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi was linked to the CIA operation to find Osama bin Laden. Under the guise of giving out a Hepatitis B vaccination, the doctor collected DNA samples from children, looking for bin Laden’s family members.

A link was established between the CIA and vaccinations and starting on June 16, 2012, tribal leaders banned the vaccination campaign. The Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur said vaccinations would be banned until the CIA stopped its drone campaign in North Waziristan, according to UPI.

And the ban has been enforced. In the 14 months since it was lowered, at least 22 people involved in vaccination efforts have been killed and another 14 have been injured. As a result, an estimated 300,000 children in North and South Waziristan were forbidden from vaccinations, and the UN was forced to suspend polio eradication efforts in Pakistan. There have been 24 cases of polio in Pakistan so far this year, and three cases of paralysis, but as the New York Times pointed out, "even one case shows that the virus is in the area and could spread."

The medical community is understandably pissed at the CIA for compromising them and making their difficult work even harder. “Medical neutrality is outlined in the Hippocratic Oath and is delineated in the Geneva Conventions,” said a Johns Hopkins press release that accompanied a letter to Obama from 12 prominent public health officials this past January.

An opinion piece in Scientific American from May 2 outlined, in more detail and stronger language, why the CIA shouldn’t have used a sham-vaccination ruse. “Few mourn [bin Laden] the man responsible for the slaughter of many thousands of innocent people worldwide over the years,” the article said. “But the operation that led to his death may yet kill hundreds of thousands more.”

The letter goes on to explain that it is “hard enough” to distribute vaccines in politically unstable regions, and ones where the uneducated harbor an aversion to vaccines based on rumors. One, perpetrated and spread by extremist Islamic leaders, is that the vaccine is a CIA plot to sterilize Muslim children, according to the New Statesman. Another is that it contains materials forbidden by Islam, such as alcohol and pig’s blood.

The health workers's ire is rooted in feeling like they are missing an opportunity. They felt they had polio on the run. And unlike a war on "terror," health care officials have a plan and timeline to win their war.