The BBC has reported a tragic polio epidemic. Despite the existence of a vaccine that has helped eradicate the disease in many parts of the world, polio is rapidly spreading in Pakistan. Last May, the BBC warned:
Pakistan is facing international travel restrictions because of an uncontrolled outbreak of polio. But unless vaccinators gain unfettered access to North Waziristan, where the Taliban are in control and have banned the vaccine, it will be hard to stem the spread of the disease, reports Kim Ghattas..
… The Pakistani Taliban insurgency there has hampered access for health workers…
…The militants say vaccinations are a cover for espionage and part of a Western conspiracy against Muslims…
Last month, the BBC reported the situation in Pakistan is growing worse:
The number of cases of polio in Pakistan has topped 200 for the first time in nearly 15 years.
Pakistan is the only country where the virus is spreading fast – showing up in sewage samples all over Karachi.
The Taliban imposed a ban on the vaccine in 2012 which has meant nearly 300,000 children have not been vaccinated for two years. Security personnel escort workers as they administer the vaccine.
And in another article, also last month, the BBC reported:
…Suspicions over the programmes worsened after the US was accused of using a fake vaccination programme during its tracking of al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
Since December 2012, about 60 people, including health workers and police providing security to medical teams, have been killed by Taliban militants targeting polio teams.
Why do “militants” say the vaccine programs have been used as a cover for espionage?
Maybe it has to do with recent assertions in the New Statesmen, arguing the “Muslim world” is “in thrall to conspiracy theories.”
The “We’ve been lied to” argument goes only so far. Scepticism may be evidence of a healthy and independent mindset; but conspiracism is a virus that feeds off insecurity and bitterness. As the former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani has admitted, “the contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories” is a convenient way of “explaining the powerlessness of a community that was at one time the world’s economic, scientific, political and military leader”.
Or maybe the “militants” say the vaccine programs have been used as a cover for espionage because they actually have:
CIA Says It Will No Longer Use Vaccine Programs As Cover
by BILL CHAPPELL
May 20, 2014
A White House official says the CIA will no longer use vaccine programs as cover for spy operations, answering health experts’ complaints that it had hurt international efforts to fight disease.
The CIA famously used a vaccination program as a ploy to gain information about the possible whereabouts of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. That effort didn’t succeed, and the doctor involved was sentenced to a prison term. But the revelation had immediate effects — particularly in the fight against polio.
As The New York Times reported in 2012, vaccination teams were banned in some areas of Pakistan.
And vaccination workers have been assassinated, the deans from Tulane, Emory, Columbia and other universities wrote in a letter to President Obama dated Jan. 6, 2013. They also compared the use of vaccine programs to the CIA’s early infiltration of the Peace Corps, saying that in both cases, the practice had to be stopped to protect volunteers and gain access where people are most vulnerable to disease.
Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco recently sent a letter responding to the deans. She wrote that in August 2013, CIA Director John Brennan issued an order forbidding the use of vaccination programs to gather intelligence or genetic evidence.
From Yahoo News, which obtained a copy of the letter:
“CIA Director John Brennan made the decision himself because he ‘took seriously the concerns raised by the public health community,’ CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz said.
“‘By publicizing this policy, our objective is to dispel one canard that militant groups have used as justification for cowardly attacks against vaccination providers,’ Ebitz said by email.”
News of the CIA’s revised policy was first reported by Yahoo and The Washington Post, which also noted the timing of the response — more than 16 months have passed since the deans wrote to Obama.
Quoting a “senior administration official,” the Post says it was told that “this was a unique case that required deliberate thought and review on our end before we made such a statement publicly.”
Update at 4:16 p.m. ET. ‘Not Going To Help’:
NPR’s Jason Beaubien filed a story about this decision for tonight’s edition of All Things Considered. Here’s an interesting bit from it:
“‘The CIA is not exclusively responsible for the problems we have in getting children vaccinated but it certainly didn’t make it anything easier,’ says Anthony Robbins, the co-editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. Robbins wrote an editorial denouncing the CIA use of fake vaccination programs back in August of 2012. Even before bin Laden was killed in 2011, the Taliban had banned polio immunization in the parts of Pakistan it controls. The Taliban claimed the polio drops sterilize Pakistani children and vaccinators were American spies.
“The head of one large anti-polio campaign in Pakistan wasn’t happy to hear the CIA’s latest declaration. ‘I don’t think this statement is going to help in anyway,’ says Aziz Memon, who heads Rotary International’s polio eradication effort in Pakistan. He says Pakistanis were starting to forget about the controversy over the fake CIA vaccination campaign and now he expects the issue to blow up in the local media all over again.”
In Pakistan, Memon worried the issue would “blow up in the local media all over again.” But what about in the US? Do most Americans know the CIA really did use the vaccination program as a cover for spy operations?
This revelation doesn’t mean the CIA is solely responsible for the epidemic in Pakistan, as noted in the NPR article, but the CIA is certainly complicit. Assuming the CIA plot was not intended to deliberately sabotage the vaccine program, it was at the very least an example of ruthless, short-sighted calculus with devastating consequences for the people of Pakistan.