What price will the black-ops bin Laden vaccination scheme exact on global health efforts?

This should warm the hearts of all of you who thought it was impossible to come up with more vaccine conspiracy theories: It turns out the CIA had been operating a fake vaccination campaign as part of their plan to identify Osama bin Laden. According to The Guardian (which found time to break this story on top of all of their incredible News Corp-phone hacking reporting):

As part of extensive preparations for the raid that killed Bin Laden in May, CIA agents recruited a senior Pakistani doctor to organise 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 US officials and local residents. …

DNA from any of the Bin Laden children in the compound could be compared with a sample from his sister, who died in Boston in 2010, to provide evidence that the family was present. …

The doctor went to Abbottabad in March, saying he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers, who took part in the operation without knowing about the connection to Bin Laden. Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children.

It appears, although I can’t tell for sure from that Guardian piece, that children were receiving legitimate doses of the hep B vaccine and not placebo injections…although it also appears that children in at least one region missed out on the second and third doses so that the US-sponsored plan could be put in place.

Regardless, I think this is a horrible move with potentially dangerous consequences. One of the areas in which the US government and Western NGOs have had (and stand to have in the immediate future) an enormously positive impact on global health is vaccines. Last month, the largest donors to the GAVI Alliance pledged $4.3 billion to help efforts to vaccinate 250 million children by 2015. The Gates Foundation has declared this the “Decade of Vaccines,” and Bill and Melinda Gates have pledged $10 billion this decade to research, develop and deliver vaccines for the world’s poorest countries.

At the Pacific Health Summit last month, there was much discussion of how to improve distribution channels, supply chain management, and R&D — and mercifully little discussion of how to combat vaccine-conspiracy theories in the developing world. This is not because it was an issue that was being ignored but because compared to everything else, that is a relatively minor concern. (In Ghana, there hasn’t been a single death from measles since 2002; the same can not be said for the UK, which is still dealing with the fallout of the various MMR panics that caused measles vaccination rates to plunge from above 90 percent to below 80 percent in the early years of the 21st century.)

That does not mean it couldn’t become a major issue in very short order. We’ve already seen polio eradication efforts hindered by rumors that the polio vaccine is being used by Western imperialists to sterilize Muslims. Now, anti-vaccine activists have been given a legitimate reason to question the motives behind grass-roots vaccination campaigns.

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