Fake vaccination campaign fails to save children

    A baby gets a medical checkup at a hospital in Pakistan where Save the Children provides medical aid. The fake vaccination program launched as part of an attempt to locate Osama bin Laden has tainted the work of the organization and public health workers in Pakistan. Photo by: Sajjad Ali Quereshi / Save the Children

    It’s been a year, but the fake vaccination program launched as part of an attempt to locate Osama bin Laden continues to haunt members of an aid organization working in Pakistan.

    The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reportedly tapped Dr. Shaki Afridi to carry out a hepatitis B vaccination program in Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was killed in a U.S. operation one year ago, as a way to obtain DNA samples from bin Laden’s family members. Afridi, Pakistani intelligence interrogators allege, said he was introduced to the CIA via Save the Children, a claim the humanitarian organization denies, The New York Times reports.

    David Wright, Save the Children’s country representative in Pakistan, said the group’s work has been disrupted since the “false claim.” Apart from experiencing visa difficulties, the group’s medicine shipments have been stuck in airports, “bound up in red tape.”

    “If it continues then we won’t be able to do our jobs at all in 10 years time,” he said.

    The situation, which Wright largely blames on the CIA, is not only putting stress on aid workers but also on people benefiting from the group’s programs. Wright said the stalled shipments are depriving an estimated 35,000 children in need of medical care.

    Also, money that was allocated for children’s programs has been going to staff members’ airfares instead. Several are given only one-month visas and have to fly back to their home countries every four weeks to renew their visas, the Telegraph reports.

    The fake vaccination program has tainted the work of public health workers as well. Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s adviser on polio, said parents in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province refuse to have their children vaccinated. Conservatives and extremists have warned them that the vaccines are part of a “Western plot.”

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    About the author

    • Jenny Lei Ravelo

      Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.