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January 8, 2013

CIA Vaccination Cover in Pakistan

The Deans of twelve of the most eminent American schools of public health sent a letter to President Barack Obama vigorously protesting the precedent that was set when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used the guise of a vaccination campaign to hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Widespread media reports and U.S. government spokespersons suggested that Dr. Shakil Afridi ran a Hepatitis B vaccination campaign in multiple areas in Pakistan with the goal of obtaining fluid containing DNA from children living in suspect households in proximity to Osama Bin Laden’s residence. The effort did not succeed in the Bin Laden compound and Afridi was convicted of treason in Pakistan last summer.

This disguising of an intelligence-gathering effort as a humanitarian public health service has resulted in serious collateral consequences that affect the public health community. In September of 2012, after working for 30 years in Pakistan, Save the Children was ordered to remove all expatriate staff from the country,  despite never having employed Dr. Afridi. Last month, eight polio vaccination workers were assassinated, resulting in the suspension of U.N. polio eradication efforts in Pakistan. Pakistan is one of only three countries where wild polio transmission still occurs.

Medical neutrality is outlined in the Hippocratic Oath and is delineated in the Geneva Conventions. It is a cornerstone of the Red Cross Code of Conduct, to which almost all international nongovernmental organizations including, the U.N., adhere.  This concept has allowed our graduates to work for decades during armed conflicts and chaotic disasters with the default assumption that public health servants have the health of those they serve as their highest priority.  In the world’s most intense hotspots, unarmed public health workers systematically show up to provide lifesaving food and water services, appropriate medical care, and outbreak-prevention measures. The public health school deans expressed concern that this “humanitarian space” historically afforded aid workers may be greatly curtailed by the precedent set by the CIA in Pakistan.  The deans stated that, “international public health work builds peace and is one of the most constructive means by which our past, present, and future public health students can pursue a life of fulfillment and service.  Please do not allow that outlet of common good to be closed to them because of political and/or security interests that ignore the type of unintended negative public health impacts we are witnessing in Pakistan.”

The letter to President Obama comes from 12 of the nation’s most respected public health educators, signing as individuals, but speaking on behalf of a much wider segment of the public health community.  In 2011, the group Médecins Sans Frontières stridently condemned the vaccination ruse.  In February of 2012, Sam Worthington, the president of the American NGO lobbying body Interaction, wrote a letter to then CIA director Petraeus condemning the program.  Today’s letter from the deans is believed to be the first request to the President to repudiate the sham campaign.  Those signing the letter included Deans: Buekens from Tulane, Curran from Emory, Finnegan from Univ. of Minnesota, Frenk from Harvard, Fried from Columbia, Frumkin from Univ. of Washington, Goldman from George Washington, Haymann from UCLA, Klag from John Hopkins, Philbert from Univ. of Michigan, Rimer from UNC Chapel Hill, and Shortell from UC Berkeley.

Media contact for Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Natalie Wood-Wright at 410-614-6029 or nwoodwri@jhsph.edu.