Co-authored by Tom Murphy
The latest assassination of health workers vaccinating kids against polio in Pakistan may be the tipping point.
It remains to be seen if a new surge of efforts — a letter of protest from leading public health experts, a petition — asking the Obama Administration to prohibit spies from pretending to be overseas aid and health workers will force a change in policy.
Such protests didn’t even garner an official response the last time.
When it was learned in mid-2011 that the CIA had conducted a fake vaccination scheme in Pakistan aimed at gathering evidence to locate the then still-alive-and-in-hiding Osama Bin Laden, many in the global health and humanitarian community (including Humanosphere) cried foul and predicted a lot of collateral damage.
The problem, said 200-plus aid groups in a letter of protest sent by Interaction, was not just that this would undermine international vaccination projects in Pakistan, which it arguably did in this nation with one of the world’s highest rates of polio and other infectious diseases.
Many experts said it would more broadly undermine trust and credibility for all humanitarian work – and likely endanger aid workers. Many of these tragic predictions have since come true, prompting many in the global health, aid and development community to push again for policy prohibitions against such schemes.
“Public health programs overseas offer a very special opportunity … as a bridge to creating peace and mutual understanding,” said Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and a signatory to the letter of protest sent by leading health academics to President Obama. Unlike many other kinds of aid and assistance programs with inherent political or economic complications, Frumkin said, health initiatives done correctly overseas can forge intimate bonds of trust and respect for life that transcend politics.
“This is why it’s so important not to subvert the credibility and integrity of these kind of health programs,” he said. “The recent killings in Pakistan only underline the importance of keeping our intelligence activities separate from our health aid and assistance work.”