The Guardian today reported that an investigation by the paper had uncovered a fake vaccine programme in Abbotabad, the town where Osama bin Laden was reported found and assassinated earlier this year, which was conducted by local doctors in an attempt to get his family’s DNA. A local doctor, one Shakil Afridi, was one of a number of people arrested by the ISI (the Pakistani security police) and the only one still being held. The programme started by offering a free dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine, which is normally given in three stages although in this case only one dose was given, in a poor district of Abbotabad before moving onto the wealthier district where Bin Laden lived. It is not clear whether they succeeded in gaining any of the Bin Ladens’ DNA. (More: Maggie Koerth-Baker @ Boing Boing, Maryn McKenna @ Wired.)
If true, this scheme is grossly irresponsible; it endangers the credibility of vaccine programmes throughout the world, particularly in the Muslim world where conspiracy theories about vaccines have circulated for decades, usually based on claims that they are laced with chemicals to reduce men’s fertility. It also bolsters the position of anti-vaccine activists in the west who can now claim that vaccines can be used for information gathering purposes. Surely they know that chances to eradicate polio have been missed because of such theories, much as the incidence of measles in the west rose after take-up of the MMR fell because of fears about autism.
The scam should be condemned in the strongest possible terms, yet I have not found any leader or opinion columns that even mention it in today’s British papers, and Google’s news search does not turn up any. Curbing the spread of disease should take precedence over all but the most essential security concerns, and getting rid of Osama bin Laden certainly does not fall into that category (at least, not in 2011). It is reported that Dr Afridi has been arrested for collaborating with the CIA, but any case against him should emphasise the damage he might have done to people’s health, and there must be an investigation into this in the USA also.
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