07.12.11

The CIA's Dangerous Vaccine Stunt

It was a clever ruse to score a terrorist DNA match. But the hidden costs are huge. Dr. Kent Sepkowitz on why disclosure of the CIA’s vaccine gambit could kill more people than bin Laden ever did.

This week, the U.S. disclosed that a key piece of our Osama bin Laden strategy was a “phony vaccination program” designed to obtain DNA samples from bin Laden's family.  These samples in turn would have been used to confirm that the mystery man being closely tracked in Abbottabad was, at a minimum, at least surrounded by people who had a bin Laden genetic pedigree. The information could have strengthened our confidence that we were barking up the right tree as we focused our attack on the now-famous compound.

Although the phony program apparently failed, the capture of bin Laden did not. Like everyone else, I am tickled pink that we got him and I applaud the derring-do and audacity of the CIA, the Seals, the president, and everyone else involved.

However, I fear that disclosure of the CIA’s vaccine ruse actually will turn out to kill more people than bin Laden ever did. In addition to winning kudos for its admirable cleverness, the plot also likely will confirm people’s worst fears about our conniving double-dealing government, especially in the realm of public health. The faux vaccine program details seem more James Bond than real; the CIA developed an entire Potemkin Village to “administer vaccine,” while secretly trying to hoard DNA for futuristic phylogenetic analysis. What else, one might wonder—if one were the wondering type—is the government faking us out about (besides the budget, Michele Bachmann’s husband, the sex lives of elected officials, and Social Security)?

It is not hard to imagine that when the public-health community tries to drum up enthusiasm to confront the inevitable next threat—be it measles (increasing in the Northeast right now), pertussis (a big problem these days in California) or those old favorites, avian flu and swine flu—many people will recall the great bin Laden scam and figure there is an ulterior motive for the government suddenly to be encouraging vaccination. MAYBE THEY WANT MY DNA JUST LIKE BIN LADEN. It's a paranoid's dreamy nightmare.

This is not an abstract concern. Take polio for example. It’s a major health threat in 2011 across numerous countries in Africa and Asia for a very well-known reason—about 10 years ago, Muslim imams in northern Nigeria became suspicious of polio vaccine. Rather than prevent disease, they concluded, the vaccine actually was being sent by the political leadership in the richer (Christian) south part of the country, with the encouragement if not support of the U.S., to do nothing less than sterilize Muslim children and possibly to spread HIV.

The imams were listened to; vaccination stopped. And presto: polio returned—first in Nigeria then across Africa and into Asia, following an established migration pattern. From a low of less than 800 cases occurring worldwide in 2003, polio had by 2009 come to affect thousands and was present in at least 20 countries. Worse yet, most of the cases were traceable to the Nigeria strain. By 2010, the Nigerian outbreak was finally quelled—for now—by aggressive vaccination campaigns but the damage had been done.

The imams were playing to an already convinced crowd: worldwide, people—Muslims and Jews, Christians, and Buddhists—are united by perhaps just one thing: their hatred and distrust of vaccines. The Brits are particularly recalcitrant, while the Dutch are not far behind.

The concerns are many: there are those who feel that vaccines are riddled with mercury (though they have far less than the amount in a tunafish sandwich) and therefore toxic; those who think vaccines cause autism (though the scientist who promulgated this one was revealed as a liar and his work retracted); those certain that a dangerous virus (simian virus or SV40) is contained in the vaccine (which is grown on simian cell lines) and therefore is being unwittingly transmitted; those who don’t like the pain of the “jab”; those who think acquiring infections is “natural” and therefore a wondrous builder of strong immunity, an asset somehow linked to prevention of cancer.

And of course there are those who just figure the government is always up to no good and anything they want to do is something I totally don’t want to do. The CIA’s sham will play right to this crowd (and who among us at one time or another has not been a proud member?). Here is a plot revealed in its intricate detail—a total systematic lie, a complete deceit. Your tax dollars in action.

Worldwide, people—Muslims and Jews, Christians and Buddhists—are united by perhaps just one thing: their hatred and distrust of vaccines.

The basic truth about vaccines, however, is this: they save millions of lives a year. Some vaccines have substantial side effects; vaccines such as oral polio and measles are composed of living, though sharply weakened, viruses that may cause disease. Jenna Bush’s father-in-law, John Hager, is wheelchair-bound from polio-vaccine related disease; he acquired the infection in the 1970s while caring for his then-young son (who had been given routine oral vaccination). And some people have awful reactions to vaccines including paralysis and life-altering events. This is ugly but true.

But most people don’t have a bad reaction, aren’t paralyzed, and therefore only reap the benefit of the vaccine. Those well enough to read this article likely are in the vast silent majority of beneficiaries.  It is agonizing for the public-health dweebs and do-gooders to face the same snide and smug dismissal of an actually life-saving intervention that usually is reserved for the IRS or an unctuous U.S. senator. One need only travel to a region of the world where vaccine has not reached to understand the basic flat-earther folly of the anti-vaccine stance.

The phony vaccination program is a grim reminder of the complexity of international relations as well as the interrelatedness of the world. The local doctor leading the program, Dr. Shakil Afridi, “used a team of nurses and other health workers to administer hepatitis B vaccinations throughout Abbottabad.” He since has been imprisoned by the Pakistanis for his complicity with the American ruse. Yet one could argue that our attention has been focused on the wrong enemy: in the year 2000, 620,000 people died of complications related to hepatitis B, something Dr Afridi’s vaccinations (were they real) could have prevented. Hepatitis B—now that is a real evil-doer.