20 June 2012

When politics and medicine mix

The C.I.A. hired a Pakistani physician, Dr. Shakil Afridi, to run a 2011 hepatitis B vaccination campaign in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. The vaccination campaign was a front to investigate the Abbottabad residence where Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding, and for Dr. Afridi to obtain DNA samples from the house's residents. Although Dr. Afridi did not manage to collect a DNA sample, his observations from visiting the house helped confirm that the house was bin Laden's. (In what appeared to be a politically-motivated verdict, the Pakistani government recently sentenced Dr. Afridi to 33 years in prison.)

Although the phony vaccination campaign helped kill bin Laden, it badly undermined the credibility of global health efforts. The New York Times reports that the Taliban is forbidding polio vaccinations in a Pakistani province that is one of the only remaining regions in the world where polio is endemic:
A Pakistani Taliban commander has banned polio vaccinations in North Waziristan, in the tribal belt, days before 161,000 children were to be inoculated. He linked the ban to American drone strikes and fears that the C.I.A. could use the polio campaign as cover for espionage, much as it did with Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped track Osama bin Laden.
This is awful news. Polio kills and paralyzes. The global community had gotten tantalizingly close to eradicating polio, convincing even those countries that feared ulterior motives to get on board. Vaccination drives have always attempted to separate themselves from wars and politics. During the successful smallpox eradication drive, some warring African nations even held ceasefires so that aid workers could vaccinate communities.

The C.I.A. program has ruined the credibility of vaccination drives, or at the very least has given cover to those who would use their participation in vaccination efforts as a bargaining chip. So long as North Waziristan refuses to vaccinate, it seems to me that polio cannot be eradicated.

There is a reason why the practice of medicine is supposed to be insulated from politics. In attempting to kill a terrorist, the C.I.A. violated this profession's core ethics and helped perpetuate another terror's reign.

See also a worthy New York Times news article about the ongoing impacts to international aid efforts stemming from the phony C.I.A. vaccination program.