The CIA’s costly vaccination program

The CIA’s use of a fake vaccination program to help find Osama bin Laden is a stain on an otherwise remarkable operation.

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story, the vaccination scheme was part of an effort to obtain DNA from Osama bin Laden’s relatives: “CIA agents recruited a senior Pakistani doctor to organize the vaccine drive in Abbottabad, even starting the ‘project’ in a poorer part of town to make it look more authentic, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials and local residents.”

Vaccines save lives. Not only do they save the lives of those vaccinated, but because of the “herd immunity” effect, a vaccinated community lowers the risk that the disease will spread to those not vaccinated, such as people with compromised immune systems. My concern is that the CIA’s fake vaccination program will fan suspicions about real vaccination programs.

Despite what should be incontrovertible science, vaccination opponents continue to spread fear about the safety of vaccines. The distrust and doubt they’ve created has cost countless lives, both in the U.S. and globally.

The distrust of vaccines stems not only from the disproven allegations about their safety, but also from conspiracy theorists seeking to undermine trust in global health initiatives. One widely held conspiracy theory is that vaccination programs are a way to sterilize women in developing countries. Another common conspiracy theory is that the World Health Organization introduced AIDS to African countries through a vaccination program.

That’s why Dr. Paul Offit, the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination program is “unconscionable.” Dr. Offit expressed hope that the misguided tactic “won’t have much of an impact” because those who want to create a conspiracy theory will create one, regardless of the facts on the ground.

But some impact is already being felt. As Politico reports, “Some Muslim leaders outlaw the use of vaccines as against Islam, and after the CIA operation came to light several Muslim leaders have repeated calls to not participate in vaccination programs.’

By adding fuel to the conspiracy theorists’ fire, the CIA undermined the broader goal of creating a safer world. Surely the sleuths at the CIA could have come up with an equally effective plan that wouldn’t have undermined global health.

Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffAStier.

  • polistra

    Vaccine opponents already have lots of reasons (religious, pseudo-scientific and some possibly scientific) to resist vaccination. This one small action won’t add anything meaningful or permanent.

    • cmccartn

      none scientific.. .but you forgot to mention ignorance
      there is the naturalist movement that wants to purge your body of “toxins” although they can’t define what those “toxins” are.. other than that you shouldn’t have them
      and then there are just your good old fashioned lazy, stupid people

  • diannseda

    Starting this year your child (or children) cannot be denied coverage simply because they have a pre-existing health condition. If you don’t have insurance for you and your children search “Penny Health Insurance” online they are the best.