In 2011, US officials admitted they used a fake vaccination drive in Abbottabad, Pakistan as part of an effort to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. The attempt, to obtain DNA from vaccinated kids, didn’t collect any from the bin Laden children --so the operation was a failure. But it did have a disastrous impact on other vaccination efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since the news of the operation came out, polio vaccination workers have become Taliban targets. A 2014 piece by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Laurie Garrett reported the toll on vaccine workers and the polio eradication effort worldwide.
Back in 2011, Laurie Garrett and the Gates Foundation’s Orin Levine wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting the President should “acknowledge the damage to global health efforts and commit to repairing the trust.” A few months later, deans of America’s schools of public health wrote a letter to President Obama calling for a public declaration that the CIA would never repeat the practice.
The great news is that the White House apparently listened. A letter released today from Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, says that the Director of the CIA “directed in August 2013 that the Agency make no operational use of vaccination programs.”
This is fantastic news. It is also news that’s important to share. In the same week as the deans of public health wrote to the White House, I suggested that the president issue an Executive Order banning the use of vaccination campaigns in intelligence gathering. I wrote:
"It is of course doubtful that many of those in infected communities would know of any constraint on US intelligence service use of vaccination programs, or that the knowledge would be sufficient to reverse a decision against vaccination in any particular case. However, the constraint could be advertised to local politicians and community leaders as part of vaccination campaigns, potentially reducing the risk of a boycott. Furthermore, the decision to vaccinate is made by many millions of parents every year, so there is scope for even a marginal shift in the decision calculus for or against vaccination at the individual level to impact many thousands of children worldwide, with knock-on impacts on a lower overall disease burden amongst those who remain unvaccinated."
In short, this policy change will only have impact if people know about it.
Both because the Administration should be applauded for doing the right thing, and because the world needs to know that happened, I hope this is news that spreads far and fast.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.