Is the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) responsible for the disruption in Pakistan’s vaccine programs? It seems so, according to experts!
As Pakistan prepares to embark on its vaccination program against Covid-19, the authorities fear rejection of the vaccine by a significant proportion of the population. Many of the country’s disease eradication initiatives have failed in the past because of the hesitancy of a section of people.
There are many reasons for the aversion many people in Pakistan display for such programs. In 1994, for example, Pakistan started to eliminate Polio from the country and until 2005, the efforts were going well. The country was close to achieving a polio-free status, then came the USA’s drone program in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), and with that, the rise of extremist groups as the aerial attacks intensified. The development made it impossible for the health workers to continue their operations in these areas.
There was a widespread belief among the militants in the area that the Pakistani state and the US military agencies were using such vaccination programs as a smokescreen to collect information regarding possible drone targets. Moreover, the polio eradication program consisted of workers from Pakistan, the United States, and even the UN organizations, which reinforced the suspicion of the militants that they could use such campaigns to collect intelligence.
The US-led drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas were widely criticized for causing heavy civilian casualties and the campaign extended well until Obama’s tenure. The western counterinsurgency operations have been hampering Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts in northwestern areas, which has been the world’s last major polio hub.
That led to militants attacking and detaining polio vaccination workers on the suspicion that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was using the program to identify and locate drone targets. The attacks on vaccination teams have not stopped since.
That belief was cemented when the CIA used a fake vaccination campaign in the country’s Abbottabad in 2011 to confirm the location of the world’s most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden.
The CIA used a sham hepatitis B vaccination project to collect DNA of the population in the area where Bin Laden was thought to be hiding. The blood collected from the children in such an operation was to be used to identify if any of them had matching DNA with Bin Laden.
That adventure had apparently not been successful, but the trust and reliability in such disease-control initiatives had been broken, and people have stayed away from the medical workers ever since in these areas.
The CIA-led intelligence operation had vindicated the militants’ suspicions about such campaigns being fake, and possibly, a cover for espionage. Such immunization campaigns were disrupted and forced out of the country by the militants, resulting in increased cases of polio and other illnesses in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
“The distrust sowed by the sham campaign in Pakistan could conceivably postpone polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred, Scientific American once quoted Leslie F. Roberts of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health as saying. “Forevermore, people would say this disease, this crippled child is because the US was so crazy to get Osama bin Laden,” he adds.
The operation led by the CIA had backfired with consequences extending beyond just Pakistan. According to some health specialists, the anger and suspicion of these tribal people and the Taliban towards immunization professionals after the 2011 CIA incident may have contributed to the spread of polio in Pakistan and war-torn parts of Syria and Iraq.
An investigation by The Guardian into the CIA’s fake vaccination campaign had created great outrage back in 2011, with the global healthcare professionals slamming the US intelligence agency for endangering a highly crucial disease-eradication program. The agency had in 2013 even pledged to not use such sham vaccination programs for any of its operations worldwide, but the damage had been done.
Today, Pakistan faces another crisis in the form of Covid-19, and the country’s medical infrastructure has been struggling to cope with the increasing cases. The latest reports indicated that more than 11,000 people had died because of the virus, with cases increasing in the second wave.
Pursuing a vaccination program in such a scenario will be a challenge for the country where so many suspicions have damaged the public trust in such campaigns.
Recently, a poll conducted by Gallup showed that around 37 percent of people in Pakistan were hesitant to get a vaccine once it became available. Besides the suspicion over West-sponsored intel campaigns, other conspiracy theories have added to the fear of the people in vaccines in Pakistan, making the fight against the Covid-19 as complicated as the one against polio.