No More Fake Vaccination Campaigns, Says CIA

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May 19 2014 3:27 PM

No More Fake Vaccination Campaigns, Says CIA

489724031-pakistani-health-worker-administers-polio-vaccine-drops
A Pakistani health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child in Quetta on May 12, 2014.

Photo by Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images

The World Health Organization recently reported that after years of decline, polio is starting to make a comeback. It’s a worldwide problem, but one country in particular stands out. Of the 77 cases of polio detected this year, 61 were in Pakistan, where health workers have been frequently targeted for killing, torture, and intimidation by the Taliban.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

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

The fake hepatitis b vaccination campaign engineered by the CIA to gain intelligence on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad didn’t help matters. (Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the agency carry out the campaign, is currently serving a three-decade jail sentence.)

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The campaign isn’t entirely to blame—Taliban opposition to vaccination campaigns predates the bin Laden raid -- but Abbottabad operation did help extremists portray vaccination as part of a western plot and didn't exactly allay the concerns of suspicious parents.

But Olivier Knox of Yahoo News reports today that the CIA has reportedly pledged not to use similar tactics in the future*:

“I wanted to inform you that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directed in August 2013 that the agency make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers,” President Obama’s top counterterrorism and homeland security advisor, Lisa Monaco, wrote to deans of 12 schools of public health. Yahoo News obtained a copy of the May 16 letter.
“Similarly, the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs,” Monaco wrote. “This CIA policy applies worldwide and to U.S. and non-U.S. persons alike.”     

The letter came after the deans had written a letter to the White House demanding that public health campaigns not be used as cover for intelligence-gathering operations.

This is a welcome development, though in the case of polio in Pakistan, the damage is likely already done.

*Correction, May 19, 2014: This post originally misspelled Yahoo News reporter Olivier Knox's first name.

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

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