Sad Victory for Pakistan’s Taliban: Child Diagnosed With Polio in Region Where Vaccinations Were Denied

While much attention is appropriately focused on the horrific and brutal attacks by Pakistan’s Taliban on secular political parties as the country approaches elections in its first-ever transition from one civilian government to another, we have news today of a sad triumph by the Taliban as a child in North Waziristan has been diagnosed with polio after the Taliban successfully shut down polio immunizations there last summer.

Health workers are on the cusp of making polio the second disease after smallpox to be completely eradicated from the planet. The latest plan forecasts eradication by 2018, but a huge barrier is that conservative Islamic groups view Western vaccination programs as attempts to sterilize Muslims. In addition, the participation by Dr. Shakeel Afridi in a bogus vaccination program set up by the CIA to obtain DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s compound added fresh fuel to the belief that vaccination programs also are used to spy on Muslims. Just under a month ago, a policeman protecting workers administering polio vaccine was shot and killed:

The latest attack took place in the afternoon in the Par Hoti neighborhood of the Mardan district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The policemen, Raj Wali and Mohammad Ishfaq, were accompanying two female workers on the second day of a three-day anti-polio drive, said Wajid Ali, a local police official.

The policemen were standing guard in the street as the health workers administered drops inside a house when an unidentified gunman, who appeared to be in his early 20s, walked up to them and opened fire. Mr. Wali was killed and Mr. Ishfaq was wounded, Mr. Ali said in a telephone interview. The gunman escaped.

That killing followed the deaths of eight vaccine workers last December and the violence has led to a significant interruption in the distribution of the vaccine:

In December, at least eight people engaged in polio vaccinations were shot dead in Karachi and the north-west, and in January and February two police officers were killed in similar attacks.

The UN said last month that some 240,000 children have missed vaccinations since July in parts of Pakistan’s tribal region, the main sanctuary for Islamic militants, because of security concerns.

And it is from the tribal area of Waziristan where we have today’s sad news of a child being diagnosed with polio:

A child has contracted polio for the first time in Pakistan’s militant-infested tribal belt since the Taliban banned vaccinations a year ago, a UN official said Monday.

“The new case has been detected in North Waziristan where we had been denied access in June last year,” the World Health Organization’s (WHO) senior coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, Elias Durry, told AFP.

Durry fears that this case is not likely to be isolated:

“We are worried because this new case comes as an example of a bigger impending outbreak of disease in the region,” the WHO official said.

In addition to making vaccination drives shorter and lower profile while working closely with security, the executive summary (pdf) for the new polio eradication plan has a key step of outreach to religious groups:

4. Religious leaders’ advocacy: markedly step up advocacy by international, national and local Islamic leaders to build ownership and solidarity for polio eradication across the Islamic world, including for the protection ofchildren against polio, the sanctity of health workers and the neutrality of health services.

Unfortunately, I don’t see an open call in the plan for bringing about an end to intelligence agencies undertaking new vaccination ruses, although “the neutrality of health services” would seem to touch on it. Meanwhile, Afridi has started a hunger strike in a desperate attempt to keep his name in the headlines.

7 replies
  1. hester says:

    Can you clarify what you mean by this phrase: “undertaking new vaccination ruses”? Thanks

  2. Jim White says:

    @hester: I am referring to the ruse used by the CIA where they employed Shakeel Afridi to pretend he was carrying out a hepatitis vaccination program so that he could get inside bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad to obtain DNA samples. That played right into the concern that vaccine programs are used by intelligence agencies to spy on Muslims. For programs like the polio eradication effort to succeed, intelligence agencies should pledge that such a ruse will never be used again.

  3. hester says:

    Thank you. I agree. There’s a 2-fold problem. The US/CIA- ruses and the ignorance/suspiciousness of the people we want to help. There’s a saying, “just b/c I’m paranoid doesn’t mean someone is not out to kill me.” Seems almost intractable and of course tragic.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  4. jo6pac says:

    Looks like the cia is one of the winners also in that this is a cheap way to kill people and their children.

  5. Phil Perspective says:

    @Jim White: For programs like the polio eradication effort to succeed, intelligence agencies should pledge that such a ruse will never be used again.

    And who will believe they mean it? Next to no one.

  6. joanneleon says:

    Jim, I remember that there was an organization or group of organizations who were trying to stop the intelligence agencies from using vaccination programs for covert programs.

    I just noticed this article in Scientific American from three days ago too:

    There must be a red line drawn between humanitarian efforts and the machinations of warfare, no matter how unconventional. The costs to future humanitarian endeavors, global stability and U.S. national security of doing otherwise are too high—even when weighed against the liquidation of one of the U.S.’s most fearsome enemies and even if no other option is available. As outlined in a letter signed by the deans of a dozen prominent schools of public health that was sent to the White House, President Barack Obama should direct all U.S. military and intelligence agencies to refrain from using a medical or humanitarian cover to achieve their objectives. Such efforts are bad medicine and bad spy craft. A wise leader would disavow them.

    I don’t see a link to the letter, but it seems worth publicizing and supporting.

    Okay, after a little more searching, maybe this is the letter (from January) that the article is referring to, and it might be the same one that I recalled, though I though the one I was remembering was from a specific organization. Anyway, here is a link to it:

    Deans write to Obama about CIA vaccine scheme in Pakistan, cited on a virology blog.

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    The US has long used vaccination programs as a cover for intelligence operations. In the past, I mentioned the injection of dye into suspected Viet Cong sympathizers so they could be covertly monitored at night on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

    But, unless you are from Asia, you may be unaware of this history. The most horrific use of such programs belongs to the Imperial Japanese Army. As you read the following examples, consider that the United States amnestied those responsible after WWII, and even paid them for the data that resulted from such “experiments”. The US amnesty for these horrific crimes was covered up for decades in the West. But they knew in Asia. I doubt the Taliban is aware, but it certainly contributed to the overall suspicious atmosphere around international medical programs.

    Unit 731 conducted ‘field tests’ throughout northern and eastern China from late 1939 to 1942. They specialized in spreading pathogens by contaminated water and food. They tested cholera, typhoid, paratyphoid, and especially anthrax and plague. They were reported to start epidemics and then enter villages claiming to vaccinate against the epidemic, except that they would inject the pathogen instead. Their experiments involved introducing pathogens by unusual routes such as ‘vaccine’ injections including cholera bacteria….

    Unit 100 in Changchun region worked on plague among other pathogens from 1940 to 1945. Although plague outbreaks had occurred in the region previously, several large suspicious outbreaks that took thousands of lives occurred from 1940 to the end of the war. Unit 100 used these outbreaks as cover for widespread experimentation on villagers. Injecting slum dwellers with plague under the guise of vaccines against the plague was one of their notable practices. They then relocated about 5000 survivors and burned the slum to the ground. As the war was coming to a close, the order came to destroy all evidence, buildings and people. None of the test subjects or Chinese workers escaped. Some of the infected animals were released into the countryside after the official surrender possibly triggering outbreaks of plague, anthrax and glanders in 1946, 1947 and 1951.

    The documentation for this and much more can be found in Sheldon Harris’ Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-up (Rev. ed, 2002)

    The Japanese government only admitted some of these crimes about ten years ago. The US government admitted it briefly in 1981, then again in the late 1990s. Neither government has ever apologized for their parts in this, nor has any victim ever received compensation.

    Furthermore, the criminals involved in all this, rehabilitated through the US government, later took up high positions in the world medical community, including the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, the World Medical Association has refused to condemn the Unit 731 atrocities (see this brief NYT article).

    I do not support the campaign against polio vaccinations at all, and applaud those doing that work. But the problems they face with support from suspicious folk in various areas is not all due to medieval backwardness. The US must apologize for its crimes in this area and take steps to make amends.

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