CIA's Fake Vaccination Program in Pakistan May Have Hurt Trust in Vaccines

By Linda Carroll

May 13, 2021

(Reuters Health) - Pakistani families' trust in vaccines may have been shaken by the CIA's attempt to locate Osama bin Laden through a program to collect DNA from kids under the guise of a vaccine drive, a new study suggests.

Rates at which Pakistani children received doses of polio, DPT and measles vaccines dropped at least 23% after The Guardian newspaper published a report on the CIA ruse, according to a paper published in the Journal of the European Economic Association.

"Trust in vaccinations is fragile and should be protected, particularly in contexts where radicalized groups can use actual information that sheds some shadows on vaccines to feed conspiracy theories," said lead author Monica Martinez-Bravo, an associate professor at the Center for Monetary and Financial Studies (CEMFI).

The Guardian story detailed how the CIA organized a fake vaccination program in the town where it was believed that Osama bin Laden was hiding. The fake program was used as a cover for the collection of DNA samples from the al-Qaida leader's family.

The CIA reportedly recruited a Pakistani doctor to organize the vaccine drive, "even starting the 'project' in a poorer part of town to make it look authentic."

"To this date, it is still unclear whether the vaccine ruse managed to effectively collect the DNA samples or not," Martinez-Bravo said in an email. "What matters for our study is that they did try and that this ruse was disclosed to the media."

To explore the impact of the CIA program’s disclosure, the researchers turned to data from the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement, a household survey by Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics. The survey contains individual-level data on the vaccination status of each child living in the household. The researchers focused on survey waves 2010/2011 and 2012/2013.

They found that rates declined for all three types of vaccine -- polio, DPT and measles -- between 23% and 39%. The largest declines occurred in districts with higher levels of electoral support for an alliance of parties espousing political extremism.

Moreover, the researchers found a larger decline in girls’ vaccination rates than in boys'. "This result is consistent with some parents granting greater credibility to the rumor spread by the Taliban that the polio vaccine was intended to sterilize Muslim girls," the researchers conclude.

The new study may be especially relevant now "with the narrative around COVID-19 hesitancy and trust in vaccines in general," said Goleen Samari, an assistant professor of population and family health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

"None of this is truly surprising," Samari said. "People who believe that vaccination is being used as an espionage tactic are not going to vaccinate their children."

That vaccination rates in girls took a bigger hit than those in boys also isn’t surprising "because of the narrative about sterility being forced on Muslim populations," Samari said.

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/3eGVdB9 Journal of the European Economic Association, online May 11, 2021.

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