SHOTS FOR SHOTS

In January 2009, when the Obama Administration first took office, they intended to shape U.S. foreign policy to address global health issues. Was their initial objective to eliminate the paralysis of young children- to eradicate polio from spreading throughout Asia and Arab World, or did they have an ulterior motive? Was their motive instead, much more political- to intensify national security goals? I believe it was the latter.

In the summer of 2011, after having searched ten years for Osama bin Laden, the CIA recruited Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor to limit their search to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Afridi set up a fake hepatitis B vaccination plan to obtain DNA from al-Qaeda family members. This news shook global health leaders everywhere, as it should have, because the inoculation campaigns were already politically delicate.

At the time, I was working for an international humanitarian aid organization, with polio immunizers working in Pakistan. Our CEO notified us that the Pakistani government forced us to terminate our efforts, because of false information connecting our work to that of the CIA. At the time, if you were a Pakistani, would you distrust anti-polio workers too? I would.

As increasing tensions between international humanitarian aid organizations and their fearful beneficiaries continue to boil today, militant groups, such as the Taliban continue to control the distribution of polio vaccines. Since bin Laden’s death, cases of polio have risen, spreading to war-torn countries and areas where it was eradicatedThe U.S. Engagement in Global Health Policy states that polio cases have dropped over 99% worldwide; however, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan remain endemic. In Pakistan, there are still “300,000 children that live in areas that are too dangerous for vaccinators.” Immunizers, volunteers, and women have been subject to militant attack by gunfire. The Pakistani government declared polio a national emergency, an effort costing one billion dollars every year. My question to you is, is the one billion dollars worth it if it means aid workers may die? Was there another way to kill bin Laden without tarring the image of good-hearted global health workers?

Now, the Taliban has a new leader, Mullah Fazlullah who condemns polio vaccinations. Recently, the U.S. killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the previous Taliban leader who was said to begin peace talks. Was killing Mehsud, only to have Fazlullah replace him worth it? Should global health organizations continue to spend millions and billions of dollars on polio vaccination efforts when it is known that the leader of the Taliban condemns it?

As global citizens, we are responsible for advancing global health priorities, to improve and save more lives- not to spread false information and to delay trust. Perhaps there could have been another way, if only we thought about the repercussions? Regardless of the political situation, children need to get shots. From a foreign policy and global health perspective, how do we convince the Pakistani people and militant groups who so strongly oppose vaccinations to see our side? How do we ensure foreign policy and national security goals don’t undermine global health objectives? How do we convince foreign countries to accept our help so that we no longer give, shots for shots?

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