Terrorists, Dictators, and the CIA Are Helping Polio Make a Comeback

How It Works
May 5 2014 4:12 PM

Terrorists, Dictators, and the CIA Are Helping Polio Make a Comeback

477402339-pakistani-health-worker-administers-polio-vaccine-drops
A Pakistani health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a polio vaccination campaign in Karachi on March 9, 2014.

Photo by RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

The near eradication of polio is one of the great global public health success stories of the last few decades. Thanks to concerted vaccination campaigns, the number of cases was cut from around 350,000 in 1988 to just 187 in 2012.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Today, however, the World Heath Organization warns that the crippling disease could be making a comeback. At the end of last month, there were 68 confirmed polio cases worldwide, compared to just 24 at the same time last year:

The agency described current polio outbreaks across at least 10 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as an “extraordinary event” that required a coordinated international response. It identified Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon as having allowed the virus to spread beyond their borders, and recommended that those three governments require citizens to obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio before traveling abroad.
Advertisement

The disease has also been identified in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. It has spread from Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea and from Syria to Iraq.

Polio returned to Syria last year for the first time since 1999. The collapse of the country’s healthcare system and the displacement of much of its population caused the country’s immunization rate to plummet.

In Cameroon, a lack of public health infrastructure, fears about vaccines, and the disruption caused by refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Nigeria and the Central African Republic have been identified as the primary factors behind the disease’s resurgence.

In Pakistan, efforts to combat polio have been hampered by the Taliban’s targeting of vaccination workers in the country’s restive northwest. More than 30 of these workers have been killed in the last two years. Just a few weeks ago, vaccinator Salma Farooqi was tortured and killed after being abducted from her home in Peshawar.

The Taliban portrays vaccination drives as a western plot to sterilize Muslim children or as a cover for spies. The CIA unfortunately lent credence to the latter claim by using a phony vaccination campaign as a ruse to collect DNA evidence from Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.  

The WHO's warning is a good reminder of the obvious fact that vaccines only work if you can get them into people. Considering the immense risks that health workers undergo to immunize children in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones, dictatorships, and failed states, the fact that here in the United States, preventable diseases like measles are making a comeback -- in part because parents are being scared away from immunizing their children by normally respectable media outlets -- seems particularly galling. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 9:13 AM Clive James, Terminally Ill, Has Written an Exquisitely Resigned Farewell Poem
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.