It may sound melodramatic but one of the most tragic examples of blowback from our terror war in Pakistan is that the Taliban there are now trying to prevent Pakistani children from getting the polio vaccine, which has been available to Americans since the 1950’s and is all but gone from every corner of the earth, save for Pakistan and Nigeria where the remaining victims, and traces of the virus, linger.
On Wednesday, gunmen in northwestern Pakistan killed one security officer and wounded another as they guarded a team of polio vaccination workers. While no one has yet taken responsibility for the attack, it was the latest in a string of violent attacks and threats against health workers that began when it was revealed that a Pakistani doctor had helped the CIA gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden’s family in 2011. He did this by setting up a phony vaccination drive with hopes of collecting DNA samples in Abbottabad, where the bin Laden family compound was located. U.S forces thought the ruse could give them a clue about bin Laden’s exact location. Navy Team Seal 6 eventually got their man, but the Pakistani government did not celebrate whatever role Dr. Shakil Afridi played in bin Laden’s demise — they threw the doctor in jail for a year, then tried him on what appears to be trumped up terrorism charges and sentenced him to jail for another 33 years. Reports say he is in solitary confinement in Central Prison, Peshawar.
But the repercussions of Afridi’s brief CIA experience continue. U.S lawmakers are “outraged” by Afridi’s jailing, even lining him up for a Congressional Medal of Honor and vowing to withhold aid if he is not released, but none have acknowledged that the CIA scheme may have grievously disrupted a global health plan that would see polio eradicated by 2018. They don’t acknowledge, that even before Afridi’s collusion with the CIA, Imams and other Islamist leaders in both Pakistan and Nigeria, had declared the polio vaccine off limits for Muslims, calling it, according to a New York Times story in July, “a Western plot to sterilize girls, that it is unclean under Islamic law, that it contains the AIDS virus.”
Then Afridi came along, apparently thinking he was doing the right thing in helping the U.S roust the terrorists from his neighborhood (reportedly he did not know the bin Ladens were the target) and gave the Taliban all it needed to exploit that existing fear, paranoia and the ability to control and crack down on any whiff of western influence in northwest Pakistan. The government there acted swiftly, too, disqualifying the health workers who (unwittingly and unknowingly) went along with the fake vaccination drive from further service. Their terminations (over a year ago now) were just overturned by a court in Peshawar, according to The Dawn newspaper.
Some would say the number of actual polio cases — now down double digits — in Pakistan indicate the problem is well in hand anyway. But health officials fear these developments nonetheless, because there are still traces of the virus turning up in sewage samples, and there are a greater number of “carriers” that, without a full vaccination campaign, could spur an outbreak at any time. But as experts have pointed out, the Afridi affair has put ALL public initiatives, not just polio vaccinations, at risk.
According to a recent Associated Press report based on new UNICEF numbers, 240,000 Pakistani children missed out on the UN-backed polio vaccine because of the increased violence, and some 15 health workers have been killed (not counting the one on Wednesday).
Laurie Garrett, prize winning science writer, had this to say last May on the new realities in Pakistan:
“So last July (2011), when it was disclosed that the CIA had used Afridi and a false vaccination campaign to gain access to the Abbottabad complex, I co-authored a warning with Dr. Orin Levine that the CIA had ‘destroyed credibility that wasn’t its to erode.’ We wrote: ‘It was the very trust that communities worldwide have in immunization programs that made vaccinations an appealing ruse. But intelligence officials imprudently burned bridges that took years for health workers to build.’”
They weren’t thinking — or were just thinking of themselves and the prize of bin Laden at the other end of the scheme. A means to the end. Now we can just think about paralyzed children and iron lungs, and our hope that public health officials won’t stop trying to end polio there, even though they risk their lives every day to do it.