Pakistani officials and international health organizations expressed concern Wednesday that a phony CIA vaccination program meant to obtain DNA evidence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden could harm legitimate immunization programs in the country.
This fear is especially pronounced because of the rising problem of polio. Pakistan was the only country to record an increase in cases of the crippling disease last year and now has the highest incidence of polio in the world.
Vaccination programs to combat polio and other diseases in Pakistan were already hampered by fighting with Islamist militants that blocked access by health workers to certain areas, especially in the northwest. Some Taliban commanders have also declared vaccines as against Islam.
The CIA recruited a Pakistani doctor to run a Hepatitis B vaccination drive in the northwest town of Abbottabad in March in an attempt to get DNA from bin Laden's children and confirm the al-Qaida chief was holed up there, the British Guardian newspaper first reported earlier this week. The Associated Press has confirmed details about the vaccination program from U.S. officials.
The Guardian said it wasn't clear if the alleged scheme helped confirm bin Laden's presence, but cited one source as suggesting the attempt failed. The U.S. went ahead with a covert Navy SEAL raid that killed the al-Qaida chief in Abbottabad on May 2.
Neither the White House nor the CIA would speak about the program. A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program remains secret, said the decision to use vaccinations as a cover was a rare move that reflected the seriousness of the hunt for bin Laden. Intelligence officials were under pressure to confirm bin Laden was in the compound before the president risked American lives.
Pakistani health officials held meetings about the CIA scheme on Tuesday and expressed concern that it could have a negative impact on immunization programs in other areas of the northwest, especially in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border, said a Pakistani official involved in polio eradication efforts. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Michael O'Brien, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pakistan, expressed concern that the CIA program could make it more difficult for medical officials in other parts of the country to administer critical vaccines.
"Anything that compromises the perception and impartiality of medical personnel undermines the activities of medical personnel everywhere, especially in places where access to health care is badly needed and security conditions for health care workers are already difficult," O'Brien said.
The tribal region along the Afghan border is the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida militants in Pakistan, and many residents already harbor deep suspicions about the Pakistani government and its international partners. Fighting between militants and the army in the area has also hampered vaccination drives.
World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan complained last year that health workers administering polio vaccines could only reach two in every three children in the tribal region because of the security situation.
The WHO expressed concern Wednesday about the reported CIA vaccination program, saying the organization is "concerned about the effect of the report on children's immunity in the country."
"Health interventions are by nature apolitical," said WHO spokeswoman Hayatee Hasan. "We hope that this story does not prevent children in Pakistan being vaccinated against polio, measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases."
One of the Pakistani Taliban's top commanders, Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, recently called on people in the northwest to avoid vaccines offered by the international community, claiming they were made with "extracts from bones and fat of an animal prohibited by God _ the pig."
"Don't fall prey to these infidel NGOs and this U.S.-allied government and its army," said Mohammed over the illegal radio station he transmits from his sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials and their international partners have pushed back against these claims, but the CIA's reported activities in the country may have made their job that much harder.
"The medical mission has to be immune from manipulation for political and military purposes and health care workers generally must not be compelled to conduct activities contrary to medical ethics," said O'Brien, the ICRC spokesman.
Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo in Washington contributed reporting.