News of that anti-hepatitis campaign, which U.S. officials said did not succeed in collecting bin Laden DNA, has stirred outrage among international public-health organizations, which say it could deal a stiff blow to efforts to stem polio and expand routine vaccinations in Pakistan and beyond. In a nation swirling with rumors of CIA plots, critics say, this real-life one could cement public suspicions, play to radical clerics’ anti-vaccine propaganda and endanger health workers.
“This is an example of the abuse of medical care for political or military ends,” said Benoit de Gryse, Doctors Without Borders’ head of mission in Pakistan, adding that it could cause patients to view health-care providers “as potential suspects.”
Some religious leaders and Taliban militants warn that vaccines are actually American-sponsored cocktails meant to sterilize or exterminate Muslims or that Islam forbids them. Newspapers occasionally print alarmist news reports — false, health officials here say — about children who become ill from vaccines.
In 2007, as the Taliban insurgency gained strength, health officials warned that extremist clerics’ scare-mongering was driving a dramatic increase in polio cases, particularly in the religiously conservative northwest. Forty cases were reported that year; in 2010, there were 144, according to the World Health Organization.
Government campaigns have since defused, but not fully dispelled, misinformation. Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, a top Pakistani Taliban commander whose illegal radio station streams from eastern Afghanistan into northwest Pakistan, recently told listeners that vaccines are made of “extracts from bones and fat of an animal prohibited by God — the pig,” according to the Associated Press.
“In the mountains, the religious people can use it to say, ‘See? We have been saying there is an agenda,’ ” Atiq ur-Rehman, director of a hospital in Peshawar, said of the CIA ruse.
One health official in the border belt said the main concern is that militants in that region might harm members of vaccination teams, suspecting them of being CIA agents. Another health official in Peshawar said that this week’s drive was nearly canceled out of concern about fallout from the CIA plot.
Pakistan is one of four nations — along with India, Afghanistan and Nigeria — where polio is endemic, and it is the only one where cases are rising. In the first six months of this year, 59 cases were reported.