CIA Announces Plans To End Fake Vaccination Programs

May 20, 2014
Originally published on May 21, 2014 9:20 am

The White House announced that the CIA will stop using fake vaccination programs to further its spy operations. The decision comes after leaders from U.S. public health schools brought the practice to light.

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The Central Intelligence Agency says it will no longer use fake vaccination programs in its spy operations abroad. The ban came after strong criticism of the agency for setting up an immunization campaign in Pakistan. It was part of the effort to catch Osama bin Laden. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In some of the places in the world where it's most difficult to deliver vaccines, there are rumors and myths that immunization campaigns are part of a western plot against the locals. In Northern Nigeria, for instance, vaccination campaigns have been shut down in the past over claims that the vaccine is tainted with HIV. Even before bin Laden was killed in 2011, the Taliban had banned polio immunization in parts of Pakistan it controls.

The Taliban claims the polio drops sterilize Pakistani children and vaccinators are American spies. Unfortunately, in 2010, the CIA did use a fake vaccination campaign to try to gather DNA of some children in Northern Pakistan. They wanted to see if they were bin Laden's children. If they were, it might mean he was living nearby.

ANTHONY ROBBINS: The CIA's not exclusively responsible for the problems we have in getting children vaccinated, but it certainly didn't make anything easier.

BEAUBIEN: Anthony Robbins, the co-editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy, wrote an editorial denouncing the CIA use of fake vaccination programs back in August of 2012. Immunization campaigns need to reach large portions of any community to be successful and Robbins says mothers and fathers have to believe that the vaccinators are doing the right thing for their children.

ROBBINS: If that trust disappears, then the vaccination program fails.

BEAUBIEN: The CIA vaccination scheme against bin Laden fueled the Taliban's anti-American fervor and now, Pakistan is the country with the worst polio problem on the planet. A spokesman for the CIA in an email to NPR says the policy change went into effect late last year and it's being announced now to try to undercut Taliban propaganda against vaccination. The idea is that this public statement by the Obama administration will help vaccinators, particularly in Pakistan.

But the head of one large anti-polio campaign in the country wasn't happy to hear the CIA's latest declaration.

AZIZ MEMON: I didn't think that such a statement, at this point in time, is going to help in any way.

BEAUBIEN: Aziz Memon is the head of Rotary International's polio eradication effort in Pakistan. He says Pakistanis were starting to forget about the controversy over the fake CIA vaccination campaign and now he expects the issue to blow up in the local media all over again. By his count, 62 polio workers have been killed by extremists in Pakistan since 2012. He says it takes great courage for vaccinators to keep going out every day trying to immunize children.

And the last thing they should have to worry about is being killed because the Taliban believes they're secret agents working for the Americans. This newly announced U.S. policy is an attempt to change that. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.