If you’ve been following the controversy surrounding the Oscar-nominated movie Zero Dark Thirty, you know that it’s been excoriated for various inaccuracies regarding the effort to catch Osama bin Laden. In particular, critics say the movie misleadingly suggests that the torture of al-Qaeda suspects produced the vital intelligence that led the U.S. to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
That’s not the only thing the filmmakers got wrong. The film also depicts a fake polio vaccination drive organized by the CIA in an effort to collect DNA from bin Laden’s family. U.S. intelligence officials have admitted they set up a fake vaccination campaign—but for hepatitis B, not polio. As it turns out, the campaign didn’t give any protection against the disease to young children in the town while it also failed to collect genetic material from the bin Laden family.
Much like the creators of Zero Dark Thirty, the Taliban don’t appear too concerned about whether the vaccine was against hepatitis or polio—in their view, any vaccination worker could be in the employ of the CIA. Over the past two months, nearly a dozen polio vaccinators have been killed in Pakistan, most likely by the Taliban. Heightened popular suspicion and security concerns in Pakistan are putting in danger a remarkable record of global success toward wiping out polio, as well as progress against a range of other infectious diseases that kill millions of kids each year.
The world is achingly close to defeating polio. There were 350,000 cases as recently as 1988; last year there were less than 250 worldwide. A scourge that used to kill and maim millions could soon follow smallpox and (hopefully) guinea worm into extinction.
It’s been an incredible global effort, requiring a good deal of human bravery. In Bill Gates’s annual letter (PDF) about his foundation’s work released last week, he described how the effort to increase vaccination rates enlisted thousands of committed staff. In Nigeria, “polio workers walked through all high-risk areas in the northern part of the country. Step by step, they explored these areas and spoke with people, adding 3,000 communities to the immunization campaigns.” The anti-polio drive has prompted collaboration even among avowed foes. India, which has been polio-free in the last two years, recently hosted a high-level delegation from Pakistan to provide technical support toward the elimination program.
All this progress could be jeopardized if the disease spreads in the three countries that have never eliminated polio: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. The experience of northern Nigeria shows how the cost of local distrust can spread worldwide when it comes to infectious disease. In 2003, a polio vaccine boycott was held in the region when imams and local political leaders claimed the program was part of a U.S.-backed sterilization plot. From 2002 to 2006, vaccination rates in the country fell and polio rates increased fivefold. The Nigerian strain spread and reinfected countries previously polio-free, setting the global eradication campaign back by years.
Similarly, polio infections doubled (PDF) from 2009 to 2011 in Pakistan, and a polio virus strain originating from the country was recently discovered in sewage samples collected in Cairo in December. That suggests the disease could reemerge in Egypt, which has been polio-free since 2004.
The U.S. has been a leading force in saving children’s lives worldwide through vaccination programs against a wide range of diseases, including polio. It was the major funder of the campaign to wipe out smallpox; Rotary Clubs around the country have raised funds and awareness about global polio eradication for decades. International efforts supported by America to increase access to vaccines have had a huge impact. Take measles: In 1980, the disease killed 2.6 million people a year; thanks to a massive vaccine rollout, that number was down to 139,000 by 2010.
There’s reason to worry that the CIA’s failed vaccine ruse in Abbottabad has put continued progress at risk. That’s why the U.S. should publicly forswear repeating it. A formal ban on using campaigns as cover for intelligence operations wouldn’t stamp out all the conspiracy theories. Yet it might help make vaccine workers less of a target. Given that the decision to vaccinate is made by many millions of parents every year, even a marginal shift in attitudes for or against vaccination could save thousands of lives worldwide.
We already limit intelligence operations when they might clash with our broader interests or concerns. U.S. Executive Order 12333 bans the CIA from conspiracy toward assassination; Order 13491 bans torture. To protect the security of the Peace Corps, the intelligence services traditionally abstain from using volunteers as operatives or cover. Let’s add one more constraint: no involvement in childhood vaccination programs.