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CIA's vaccine ruse in Pakistan carries fallout

The phony campaign was aimed at helping find and kill Osama bin Laden, but the doctor involved now faces treason charges, and real immunization workers say Pakistanis don't trust them.

October 07, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • The house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Dr. Shakil Afridi used to stay. He could face treason charges in Pakistan over his involvement in a fake vaccination campaign the U.S. carried out in Abbottabad in hopes of obtaining DNA of Osama bin Laden's relatives as it sought to track down and kill the Al Qaeda leader.
The house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Dr. Shakil Afridi used to stay.… (EPA )

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — A phony vaccination campaign orchestrated by the CIA to help find and kill Osama bin Laden is undercutting Western-backed immunization drives against polio and other diseases, and now has the Pakistani doctor involved in the program possibly facing treason charges.

A Pakistani government commission investigating the U.S. raid that killed Bin Laden in May recommended late Thursday that treason charges be filed against Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who helped carry out the fake vaccination effort designed to obtain DNA evidence from the Al Qaeda leader's sprawling compound in Abbottabad.

If Afridi is charged and convicted, he could face the death penalty. U.S. officials have been seeking the doctor's release since his arrest in May by Pakistani intelligence agents and have defended the ruse, arguing that extraordinary measures were needed to track down the world's most wanted terrorist.

The secret operation to gather evidence from Bin Laden's compound took place in the weeks preceding the May 2 U.S. raid and was masked as a vaccination drive for the hepatitis B virus. It is not known when Afridi, at the time the chief surgeon for the Khyber region in Pakistan's volatile tribal areas, was recruited by the CIA.

One of Afridi's nurses was able to get inside Bin Laden's compound but was unable to obtain the samples needed for a comparison to DNA the U.S. government had on file from other members of the Bin Laden family.

The ruse not only compounded Pakistan's anger toward America over the raid but also hampered efforts by Pakistani and Western aid organizations involved in real vaccination campaigns, a worrying development in a country where poor sanitation and lack of adequate healthcare aggravate the spread of disease.

Aid teams heading polio vaccination drives reported that more parents were refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated after news of the CIA ruse.

The phony campaign's repercussions on polio vaccinations is particularly alarming because Pakistan is one of four countries where the disease is still considered endemic, according to the World Health Organization. This year, 100 new cases of polio have been recorded in Pakistan, according to WHO statistics.

Pakistani health officials say many parents in rural areas or impoverished city districts resist immunizing their children, often because they are misled by fundamentalist clerics who erroneously assert that the vaccines lead to infertility or contain substances extracted from pigs and are thus forbidden by Islam.

The CIA ruse compounded the problem, said Irfan Ali Shah, a senior health official involved in polio vaccination drives in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

"This sort of operation certainly has adversely affected our immunization efforts," Shah said. "People do have reservations because of it, and we are trying to counter that. This sort of thing never should happen when there's active immunization going on in the country."

Fallout from the phony vaccination drive has also severely hampered the work of several Western aid organizations in Pakistan, which say they have been harassed by Pakistani intelligence agents suspicious of the groups' affiliations. Some groups have reported difficulties in getting visas renewed for their workers.

"To live and work and get permission to do anything has become more difficult," said Pascal Cuttat, the departing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Pakistan, during a news conference in Geneva in July. "Everyone is struggling with the bureaucracy."

International aid groups are especially concerned about the lasting perceptions the CIA ruse will leave in places like Pakistan, where the public is already deeply suspicious of Western intentions. Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian group, called the phony campaign "a dangerous abuse of medical care."

"The risk is that vulnerable communities — anywhere — needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid," the group's president, Unni Karunakara, said in a statement released this summer. "The potential consequence is that even basic healthcare, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it most."

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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