I would bet my next paycheck that there is not a global health blogger out there who has not expressed his or her outrage at the recent revelation that the CIA used a hepatitis vaccination campaign in Abbottabad as a front for an operation to obtain a blood sample from bin Laden’s children, in order to verify that he was, in fact, hiding out there. If this sounds like something out of the movie Conspiracy Theory to you, you are not alone – alas, it is unfortunately, tragically true, and could be potentially disastrous.
Anyone who knows anything about the importance of, and difficulty in implementing, vaccination campaigns understands what an atrocious idea this was and what a mess it could leave behind. Vaccine advocates have spent many years and millions of dollars debunking myths and misinformation, informing people of the benefits of vaccines, and working to gain the trust of political and religious leaders and their communities. You would think it would be obvious that no one is going to let anybody stick a needle in their kid’s arm unless they have good reason to believe it will help and not harm them – and all it takes is one bad PR move to earn the distrust of parents. Hell, look at the damage one study did to childhood vaccinations in the U.S. and the UK. Even after the Wakefield study was proven flawed, dozens of other studies disproved it, and the doctor himself was shown guilty of misconduct, many parents still believe vaccines may cause autism (my mother included). Apparently, the CIA did not bother to check with anyone on the collateral damage they might have caused – or, if they did, they simply did not care.
Brett Keller sums it up beautifully:
This is absolutely terrible, and not just because the kids originally involved might not have gotten the second round of vaccine (which is bad) or because it will make the work of legitimate public health officials in Pakistan even harder (which is very bad). Vaccines are amazing innovations that save millions of lives, and they are so widely respected that combatants have gone to extraordinary lengths to allow vaccination campaigns to proceed in the midst of war. For instance, UNICEF has brokered ceasefires in Afghanistan and Pakistan for polio vaccine campaigns which are essential since those are two of the four countries where polio transmission has never been interrupted.
He also has a great round-up at the bottom of his post of the other blogs that have covered it.
The greatest irony of all may be that the scheme did not even work – sources suggest that the doctor who spearheaded the project did not get what he was after. Regardless of the project’s “success,” it is a slap in the face to public health professionals who have devoted their careers to promoting vaccination as a way to protect children (and adults) from the world’s most devastating diseases.