One of my most persistent memories of my friend Dr. Albert Sabin, who developed an oral vaccine against poliomyelitis (polio), was — when we’d meet after one of my health-related missions overseas — his questions about the polio situation in the country I had visited.
I am sure he would be dismayed at the return of polio in many countries, and even more so when he learned that this phenomenon is due to the spurious use of public health programs.
In July 2011, an investigation carried out by The Guardian revealed that the CIA had organized a false vaccination program where Osama bin Laden was reportedly hiding, as a way to obtain DNA samples from the al-Qaida leader’s family. The CIA had been monitoring the compound were bin Laden was believed to be living, but the agency wanted confirmation before mounting a risky operation in another country.
If it could be obtained, DNA from any of bin Laden’s children could then be compared with a DNA sample from a bin Laden sister who had died in Boston in 2010, to establish that the family was then at the compound.
A Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, organized a hepatitis B vaccination campaign to be carried out at Abbottabad, the town where bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Health workers were among the few people who had visited the compound before to administer polio drops to some of the children.
After the deception was revealed by the British newspaper, however, the ruse had an unexpected outcome. Angry villagers in several tribal areas on the Afghan border chased away legitimate health workers. They accused those workers of being spies who wanted to gather information on the people living in that region. The unfortunate result is that many children were not vaccinated against polio. The disease made a comeback in areas where it had been practically eliminated.
Paradoxically the cover used by Afridi wasn’t the polio vaccine but the hepatitis B vaccine. “There could hardly have been a more stupid venture, and there was bound to be a backlash, especially for polio,” stated Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, an immunization expert at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan.
According to many experts’ opinion, this provoked one more setback in the war against polio that, by many assessments, could have ended in 2000.
For many years, polio immunization campaigns have been a source of controversy among Muslims in many countries. Rumors associated with the vaccine — that it carries HIV, that it is unclean under Islamic law or that it is a Western plot to sterilize Muslim girls — have led to many people in Muslim countries to reject the vaccine. This has resulted in the resurgence of polio in those countries.
This is the case of Nigeria, where in 2003, the governors of three states in northern Nigeria — Kano, Kaduna and Zamfara — decided to suspend polio immunization until the vaccines were investigated and proven safe.
Although tests conducted at the National Hospital Abuja and at a lab in South Africa showed that the vaccines were uncontaminated, the Kano government declared that its tests showed the vaccine contained estrogen in quantities that could lower fertility in women.
As a result, polio, which had been eradicated from almost all of Nigeria, made a comeback not only in Kano but also in other parts of Nigeria, including Lagos, the nation’s commercial capital. Afterward, Nigerian strains of the polio virus appeared in several West and central African countries such as Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Central African Republic.
We thus have a situation where both founded and unfounded beliefs have led to people in several countries to reject immunization against a disease that by many criteria should now be a fact of history. Polio’s resurgence has been called a “global emergency” by the World Health Organization.
According to WHO, the first few months of 2014 have seen a significant rise in polio infections across the globe.
As things stand now, a coordinated international response is imperative, as is the commitment of political leaders not to use public health campaigns for spurious political means.
Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a cowinner of the the Overseas Press Club of America award.