LONDON (AlertNet) - Reports that the CIA carried out a fake vaccination campaign in Pakistan during efforts to track down al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could hurt future immunisation drives, health experts say.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres condemned the alleged misuse of a vaccination campaign for military objectives as “a dangerous abuse of medical care” and said it threatened to undermine trust in aid workers trying to save lives.
The CIA allegedly recruited a Pakistani doctor to run a Hepatitis-B immunisation drive in the northwest town of Abbottabad in March to try to get DNA from bin Laden’s children to confirm whether the al Qaeda chief lived there.
The idea was to try to match a DNA sample they had from bin Laden's sister, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. It's unclear whether the ruse worked and the CIA isn't talking. Either way, experts say the report could undermine efforts to control killer diseases.
“The alleged fake CIA vaccination campaign constitutes a grave manipulation of the medical act,” said MSF’s international president, Unni Karunakara.
“The risk is that vulnerable communities – anywhere - needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid. The potential consequence is that even basic healthcare, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it most.”
The fears are all the more acute in Pakistan as it has the worst polio problem in the world and one of the highest rates of measles.
Vaccination programmes there have already been hampered by fighting between Pakistani troops and Islamist militants, which has prevented health workers reaching some areas, especially in the northwest.
In the past, some Muslim clerics have also denounced vaccinations as a foreign ploy to sterilise people. Pakistan is the only country to see an increase in the crippling disease which has been eradicated in most of the world.
“With all populations in crisis, it is challenging enough for health agencies and humanitarian aid workers to gain access to, and the trust of, communities – especially populations already sceptical of the motives of any outside assistance,” added MSF’s Karunakara.
FEARS FOR CHILDREN
Former aid worker Andrew Chambers said the alleged fake vaccination programme could profoundly impact aid agencies and global healthcare policies.
“It politicises medical aid and will fuel anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, which risk rolling back the successes in programmes such as the multibillion-dollar polio-eradication initiative," he wrote in the Guardian
The United Nation’s World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was concerned about the effect on children's immunity.
“Health interventions are by nature apolitical; vaccinations protect children all over the world against diseases that can kill and maim for life. We hope that this story does not prevent children in Pakistan being vaccinated against polio, measles and other diseases,” WHO spokeswoman Sona Bari said.
She said suspicion of vaccinations was not new, nor unique to Pakistan. Health workers were continuing to monitor perceptions, implement measures to ensure health workers' safety and inform communities of the benefits of vaccinations.
“That is our priority – to make sure that this unfortunate story does not jeopardise the health of children,” she added. “A national polio immunisation campaign starts on Monday. This campaign will give us an opportunity to listen to any concerns from the community; so far, there has been none.”
Guardian health reporter Sarah Boseley, writing in her blog for the newspaper, said mounting a fake vaccination campaign could undermine parents' faith in vaccines and "had the potential to cause massive collateral damage".
But she added: “I’m hoping it will be seen for what it was – a black day for medical ethics and a one-off crazy scheme to locate bin Laden...
“Hopefully when the next round of polio vaccination comes along, the vast majority of Pakistani people will not hesitate to bring out their children – and will forgive and forget this piece of CIA stupidity.”