Skepticism of vaccine programs overseas made worse by Zero Dark Thirty film

Is it foreign aid or covert aid?
Is it foreign aid or covert aid?
Flickr, johanoomen

Journalist Rob Crilly rightfully criticizes the film Zero Dark Thirty for getting its facts wrong about the CIA vaccination campaign that sought to confirm the DNA of bin Laden’s children.

The truth is dangerous enough. But Zero Dark Thirty risks making a difficult situation worse with a clumsy mistake. The real-life Dr Afridi used the cover of a hepatitis vaccination programme, but in the movie his team wear jackets suggesting they are providing polio drops.

For a movie that has claimed to be as factually accurate as possible in the face of criticisms, this is an error that should not have been made. However, Crilly’s larger point is to say that the film gives further ammo to polio vaccine conspiracy theorists.

In a country where polio has made a comeback in recent years, the film provides yet another blow for health workers trying to eradicate the disease and prevent Pakistan acting as a reservoir to reinfect the rest of the world. If you think I’m scaremongering or I’m soft on Pakistan, blaming the CIA for its domestic ills, read this interview in one of the local papers, describing how a father crippled by polio allowed his son to be infected – apparently the first case in Karachi for more than a year…

The question that lingers is whether the mistake in the movie has any real impact. The father who did not immunize his children against polio told the Pakistan Tribune, “We thought that the polio campaign was being run by the Jews and Americans, so I wouldn’t let anyone give drops to my child.” He cited the fear based on the collaboration between the CIA and Dr Afridi.

People have been critical of the CIA’s use of a vaccination campaign to capture bin Laden. The ban on polio vaccines by the Taliban and the killing of polio vaccine workers across Pakistan have been linked to the revelation of the plot. However, skepticism of vaccines goes further back than the CIA plot.

UNICEF report on vaccines from 2011 found that there were 22,000 vaccine refusals in Karachi in the first half of 2011. Refusals declined from 23% to 11% in the higher burden areas of Balochistan and Sindh between January and July of that period. That means that progress was being made against attitudes against vaccine campaigns prior to the revelation of the CIA plot.


The Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP) is trying to track and quantify public confidence in immunizations.  It is funded through the Gates Foundation and led by Dr Heidi Larson, Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A 2011 paper in the Lancet by Dr Larson, et al. covered the wide landscape of vaccine confidence.

The authors showed that trust in vaccines were affected by a series of influences that ranted from celebrity deniers (Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy) to social networks like Facebook. Even the pharmaceutical companies contribute to vaccine confidence. The problematic trial of the drug Trovan in 1994 created a polio vaccine scare. “Public trust of the internationally driven polio vaccination campaign in northern Nigeria, for example, was undermined by Pfizer’s trial of the Trovan vaccine in northern Nigeria, because child deaths were suspected to be linked to the trials,” cite the authors.

Concerns about polio vaccines in Nigeria continued. In 2003 the chairman of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria, Datti Ahmed, led a boycott of polio vaccines. He claimed that they contained HIV and would sterilize anyone who received the droplets. Rumors of CIA involvement in vaccines existed prior to the bin Laden plot. The event may have some connection to the recent killing of vaccine workers in Nigeria. Dr Larson shared her concerns with the New York Times.

Ten years ago, Dr. Larson said, she joined a door-to-door vaccination drive in northern Nigeria as a Unicef communications officer, “and even then we were trying to calm rumors that the C.I.A. was involved,” she said. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars had convinced poor Muslims in many countries that Americans hated them, and some believed the American-made vaccine was a plot by Western drug companies and intelligence agencies.

Skepticism of vaccines have long existed. People have claimed that they cause problems like autism (despite any evidence linking the two) and feared secret plots as a part of vaccination campaigns. The CIA plot showed that the fears, though way overblown, were somewhat justified. Facts are important. The CIA did not use a polio vaccine to catch bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty made an obvious error. However, connecting that depiction with the current vaccine fears and killings in Nigeria and Pakistan is a stretch.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]