Recently I wrote about the origins of vaccine hesitancy among the African American population. While working on the piece, a friend and former colleague reminded me of another instance of the U.S. government thwarting vaccination efforts. This time it was polio.
That may seem strange, given that the U.S. government desperately wanted a vaccine for polio, or “infantile paralysis.” The disease was once remarkably feared in the United States for causing more than 15,000 cases of paralysis per year.
That fear subsided after the introduction of the polio vaccine in 1955. By the 1960s there were fewer than 100 cases of polio-induced paralysis in the United States. The number was less than 10 by the 1970s. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated in the United States.
But it wasn’t just the United States that saw the marked reduction in polio cases resulting from a mass vaccination campaign. The CDC and other global health organizations have worked for decades to eradicate the disease. In 1988, the number of global cases was around 350,000. That number declined to 407 in 2013. As of today, the Americas, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific are all certified as “polio free.”
Although wildly successful, polio vaccination efforts remain ongoing. For a few years, it appeared as though polio would soon join smallpox and rinderpest—the only two diseases declared “eradicated” by the World Health Organization. Today, polio is endemic to only three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
Unfortunately for the people of these countries and the rest of the world, polio isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon.
Why? The U.S. government.
As part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden during the war on terror, the CIA concocted a fake hepatitis B vaccination effort to secretly collect DNA in hopes of finding the Taliban leader’s family members and, ultimately, bin Laden himself. When news broke that the U.S. government had utilized a public health campaign to engage in international espionage, the reaction was less than positive. Individuals in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, already leery of vaccination due to fears that vaccines cause sterility or HIV, became even more skeptical of medical professionals.
Following the CIA’s farce, villagers in Pakistan chased away legitimate vaccine workers, accusing them of spying for the West. The Taliban (and later ISIS) banned polio vaccination, citing the actions of the U.S. government. In December 2012, nine vaccine workers were murdered in Pakistan, prompting the United Nations to pull out their vaccination teams. In 2013, 10 vaccination workers were killed in Nigeria.
After immense backlash, the CIA announced that it would no longer use public health programs as a means of gathering intelligence. But the damage was already done. Such a pronouncement won’t change the minds of individuals in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan who—understandably—don’t trust the U.S. government. And now, as a direct result of the CIA’s phony vaccination campaign, many distrust vaccine workers as well.
People—namely children—will suffer as a result. Some will die. It’s yet another tragic, but wholly predictable, outcome of boneheaded foreign policy.
Catalyst articles by Abigail R. Hall