Update: Pakistan, Polio, Fake Vaccines And The CIA

Regular readers will remember my outraged rant post from almost a year ago, reacting to the news that the Central Intelligence Agency faked a vaccination campaign in Pakistan as a way of getting close to Osama Bin Laden’s hide-out, hoping to prove his presence by using a vaccine needle to grab a sample of DNA.

I felt, and still feel, that the maneuver — which was belatedly acknowledged by the CIA — was a cynical attempt to hijack the credibility that public health workers have built up over decades with local populations. I especially felt it endangered the status of the fraught polio-eradication campaign, which over the past decade has been challenged in majority-Muslim areas in Africa and South Asia over beliefs that polio vaccination is actually a covert campaign to harm Muslim children — an accusation that seems fantastic, but begins to make sense when you realize some of those areas have perfectly good reasons to distrust vaccination campaigns.

I take no pleasure in saying the prediction came true. Both The Guardian and the news website OnIslam reported in March that polio eradication in Pakistan — one of the three countries where polio stubbornly persists because of internal conflict — has been hampered by the fake campaign. From OnIslam:

“They (tribesmen) consider us CIA agents, who under the guise of anti-polio campaign, are there to look for other Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders,” Gulrez Khan, a Peshawar-based anti-polio worker, told OnIslam.net.

The government and NGOs have launched campaigns to vaccinate residents of north-western Pakistan against polio.

But the campaigns have been resisted by residents, who are worried that the campaigns are only meant to hunt down Taliban tribesmen.

“It’s been over ten months since the Al-Qaeda Chief Osama Bin Laden is dead, but his ghost is still haunting our efforts not only to persuade the people in the country’s northwestern parts, particularly in the tribal belt, to get their kids vaccinated, but also to move freely,” Khan said.

I bring this back up now because there is news today about the doctor, Shakil Afridi, who conducted the fake campaign on behalf of the United States. According to the New York Times and Reuters, he has been convicted of treason. From the Times:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A Pakistani doctor who helped the Central Intelligence Agency pin down Osama bin Laden’s location under the cover of a vaccination drive was convicted on Wednesday of treason and sentenced to 33 years in prison, a senior official in Pakistan said.

A tribal court here in northwestern Pakistan found the doctor, Shakil Afridi, guilty of acting against the state, said Mutahir Zeb Khan, the administrator for the Khyber tribal region. Along with the prison term, the court imposed a fine of $3,500. Dr. Afridi, who may appeal the verdict, was then sent to Central Prison in Peshawar.

He had been charged under a British-era regulation for frontier crimes that unlike the national criminal code does not carry the death penalty for treason. Under Pakistani penal law, Dr. Afridi almost certainly would have received the death penalty, a Pakistani lawyer said.

The Guardian, which led on this story all along, reports that the US is quietly pressuring Pakistan to let Afridi go. Pakistan views recruiting one of its citizens into a covert operation within its borders as an offense against its sovereignty. The US is countering that the operation just happened to be in Pakistan, but was against al-Qaeda and bin Laden, who had been denounced by the United Nations Security Council and thus were fair game wherever they happened to be:

The US state department said there is “no basis” for the arrest and detention of Dr Shakil Afridi, the former surgeon-general of Khyber, who was convicted of treason over the scheme to identify Bin Laden through DNA.

But even as senior American politicians denounced the sentence as “outrageous”, the Obama administration shied away from strong comment on the trial itself as officials said that the legal process is not at an end. Officials are hoping that the sentence can be shortened or overturned on appeal…

Two US senators, John McCain and Carl Levin, denounced Afridi’s conviction and demanded his immediate release…

“Afridi set an example that we wish others in Pakistan had followed long ago. He should be praised and rewarded for his actions, not punished and slandered.”

The commenters at the New York Times — 126 so far — do an unusually good job of filling in the back-story, mentioning the Congressional vote yesterday that cut aid to Pakistan by 58 percent, and the NATO strike last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan is one of the lead recipients of US aid, receiving $20 billion since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, according to Reuters.

The descending spiral of US-Pakistan relations clearly won’t hit bottom anytime soon. It’s sickening to think that the polio campaign, always teetering on the asymptote of eradication but never quite getting there, will be part of the collateral damage.

(Self-promotion alert: The original post on the sham CIA campaign was selected for The Best Science Writing Online 2012, which will be published in September. Pre-orders available here.)



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