World

CIA To End Covert Vaccine Programs After Polio Backlash

Amid heavy backlash, the CIA says it will no longer use covert vaccinations programs like the one used to track down Osama bin Laden.

CIA To End Covert Vaccine Programs After Polio Backlash
UNICEF / Ayberk Yurtsever

In ​2009, President Obama told the Muslim world the U.S. would help fight the war on polio. "Today I'm announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio." (Via The White House

​But then it was revealed the CIA had a covert vaccination program used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and it may have been at least partially to blame for polio's revival in Pakistan. (Via The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times)

The CIA had enlisted a Pakistani doctor to run a fake hepatitis B vaccination program in the neighborhood where bin Laden was thought to be hiding. (Via Euronews

As The Guardian first reported, the plan was to confirm bin Laden's whereabouts by comparing DNA from the children tested and matching it with DNA samples of bin Laden's relatives. 

The vaccine drive — which the CIA has acknowledged — failed to help the agency nab bin Laden. Now, amid heavy backlash, the CIA says it will no longer use programs like it. 

Yahoo obtained a recent letter the Obama administration sent to the deans of 12 public health schools. It says the CIA will "make no operational use of vaccination programs."

With that, Slate's Joshua Keating writes: "This is a welcome development, though in the case of polio in Pakistan, the damage is likely already done."

That's because after the CIA program was revealed, vaccine workers became targets of deadly Taliban strikes, and polio vaccination teams were flat-out banned in some areas until medical workers could assure the militants the vaccines weren't being used for other purposes. 

Polio had at one point been nearly eradicated in Pakistan. But a recent surge in cases led the World Health Organization to declare the virus a public health emergency in Pakistan. (Via Deutsche Welle

Critics say the CIA's vaccination program is to blame for distrust between health officials and Pakistanis, and that's why many Pakistanis aren't getting vaccinated. 

But Scientific American says that's far from the only cause: "It is hard enough to distribute, for example, polio vaccines to children in desperately poor, politically unstable regions that are rife with 10-year-old rumors that the medicine is a Western plot to sterilize girls."

There is no known cure for polio, but officials say vaccines are safe and effective. Sixty-one of the 77 confirmed polio cases worldwide this year were in Pakistan.