On May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had located and killed Osama Bin Laden. The agency organised a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in Abottabad, Pakistan, in a bid to obtain DNA from the children of Bin Laden, to confirm the presence of the family in a compound and sanction the rollout of a risky and extensive operation. Release of this information has had a disastrous effect on worldwide eradication of infectious diseases, especially polio.
On May 16, 2014, the White House announced that the CIA will no longer use vaccination programmes as a cover for espionage. The news comes in the wake of a series of militant attacks on polio vaccination workers in Pakistan, with legitimate health-care workers targeted as being US spies. The attacks have forced organisations such as the UN to suspend polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan, and have severely hampered anti-polio efforts, with parents refusing to have their children vaccinated. News of the vaccination programme led to a banning of vaccination in areas controlled by the Pakistan Taliban, and added to existing scepticism surrounding the sincerity of public health efforts by the international health community.
Consequently, WHO declared that polio has re-emerged as a public health emergency in Pakistan—one of only three countries, including Afghanistan and Nigeria, where the disease remains endemic. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, 61 of 77 cases of polio reported this year have been in Pakistan, and cases of paralytic polio have spiked, with 66 cases reported up to now, compared with only 14 last year.
The lesson learned from the experience in Pakistan is that public health programmes should be politically neutral. Although the announcement from the White House might go some way to building bridges towards that neutrality, health officials and local leaders now have the challenge of convincing communities that vaccination is not merely beneficial, but vital for children (read more)