This is a joint post with Charles Kenny.
This week, eight polio vaccination workers in Sindh and Peshawar have been killed in Pakistan during a three day anti-polio drive (see here). Last week in Afghanistan, two polio vaccinators were also killed. Suspicions of CIA involvement in the campaign have been identified as causes of the attacks. “Our teams are getting attacked, and we are having a hard time hiring health workers because they are worried about being called a spy,” said the Head of Medicine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province earlier this summer.
Using childhood vaccination as a tool of terror brings our collective humanity to a new low. This year in Pakistan, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative estimates that 56 children have been affected and some paralyzed by this totally preventable disease. In effect, the Taliban is using Pakistan’s own children as a weapon against the United States.
How should the US respond, if at all?
This situation unfortunately follows allegations that US security agencies used a Hepatitis B vaccination campaign as a vehicle for intelligence gathering (see here). And it is clear that such allegations have had a chilling effect on vaccination programs—for example in Nigeria (see here)–even when completely baseless.
Given that, it is in our own interest to make crystal clear that the US supports global public health programs to improve global health alone and that US-backed public health interventions will not be used to gather intelligence. While far from a panacea, it might help persuade a few more parents to get their kids vaccinated, or a few more local leaders to back down from a boycott. In the battle against global communicable diseases like polio and measles, every little bit helps.