Concern are growing that the Pakistani Taliban’s opposition to foreign vaccination programs, including the polio immunization, could put hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy. Yet as Western officials fault the Taliban, seemingly to the exclusion of everyone else, they overlook the backstory of vaccination opposition.
Islamist factions have a long history in Pakistan’s tribal areas, yet vaccinations haven’t been a big issue until recently. The suggestion that the Taliban are just anti-medicine or anti-technology is disingenuous, and the origin of the vaccination hysteria isn’t so hard to discern.
Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor jailed for treason (much to the chagrin of his US handlers) operated a phony vaccination program in early 2011 on behalf of the CIA, collecting the DNA of children to look for relatives of terrorists. The US was good with the program, because it was involved in the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but it also forced aid agencies out of Pakistan and led to this hysterical belief that every Western vaccination program is a front for CIA spying. Afridi gave real doses of vaccinations to the children, but it was such an afterthought that they never bothered to provide any follow-up doses, so effectively none of the children were actually vaccinated.
Going forward, this means that while officials will be blaming “the Taliban” for every polio death in Pakistan, no small measure of blame must also be saved for the US intelligence scheme that set the stage for this panic. Those children could be getting vaccinations from Dr. Afridi right now if he hadn’t decided that collecting DNA was a better use of his time.