Did CIA undermine global health by faking vaccines in hunt for Bin Laden?

One of the chronic problems the international community has with almost every disease-fighting campaign has been the need to overcome mistrust — mistrust of government, of foreign health workers or outsider do-gooders in general.

This is, for a variety of reasons, especially true of vaccines.

So many worry that such global health efforts will suffer from the revelation, reported first in The Guardian and later by the New York Times and others, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up a fake vaccination program in Pakistan in order to collect DNA samples. Says The Guardian:

The CIA organised a fake vaccination program in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader’s family, a Guardian investigation has found.

The CIA has refused to confirm or deny these reports.

Most of the media reports tend to focus on issues of terrorism, foreign policy and the increasingly strained relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. There was little attention, initially anyway, given to the possibility that this CIA ruse could also seriously undermine a key tool in the worldwide battle against disease.

As anyone who has worked in the field in a foreign country on a vaccination campaign or other such project will tell you, establishing and maintaining trust is critical to success in public health.

Pakistan is one of those corners of the world where polio continues to spread.



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