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.