June 12, 2012
If this were 1951, American families would be bracing right now
for another summer of the polio terror.
Those younger than say, 55, may not be able to relate. The worst
scare we’ve had these days is waiting ten hours in line for a
shot for a swine flu plague that never came (though an estimated
1,282 children across the country did
succumb to the H1N1 virus from 2009-2010).
Polio, on the other hand, killed 12,187 American children from
1950 to 1960 and left countless others living in the dreaded
iron lung, or with lifelong paralysis.
From the book A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph Over
Polio in America (1998):
By then, polio epidemics were second only to the
atomic bomb in surveys of what Americans feared most. Bomb and
virus alike were terrible agents of destruction that might arrive at
any moment to devastate a family, a community, or an entire nation.
The disease seemed like an omnipresent threat, and its cure became a
A national responsibility. We certainly marshaled, and
when Joseph Salk was able to perfect a vaccine and then Albert Sabin
came up with an oral dosage, the U.S. was able to wipe polio off its
map. In 1988 a major international effort was able to the same for
the developing world.
How ironic that it’s our Global War on Terror that
threatens to undo our global intentions to eradicate deadly
infectious diseases. We’re talking about Pakistan, which,
according to the World Health Organization, is
teetering on a polio crisis (yes, in 2012), and our U.S.
counterterrorism effort has just now given it a great big push in
the wrong direction.
U.S. officials were stomping
mad late last month when a tribal court in Peshawar sentenced
Dr. Shakil Afridi to 33 years in prison because he had allegedly
collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency in zeroing in on
the Bin Laden family’s compound in Abbottabad. CIA
surveillance helped to capture bin Laden there in May 2011, but
collusion with us may have resulted in far deadlier side affects
than our super spies had ever planned for.
Dr. Shakil Afridi
Afridi was used to set up a phony
public immunization campaign in Abbottabad so he could collect
DNA samples the CIA had hoped would confirm the location of bin
Laden’s people. According to The
New York Times, "American officials have said that
although Dr. Afridi never gained DNA samples from the compound, his
work aided the mission that led to Bin Laden’s death."
Well and good, but now Pakistanis believe every public health
screening and vaccination program is a CIA-backed connivance, and
they are staying away at the expense of decades of polio eradication
On March 2, The
Guardian reprinted in part a letter from InterAction, a
coalition of several international aid groups to CIA Director David
CIA’s use of the cover of humanitarian activity for this purpose
casts doubt on the intentions and integrity of all humanitarian
actors in Pakistan, thereby undermining the international
humanitarian community’s efforts to eradicate polio, provide
critical health services, and extend life-saving assistance during
times of crisis like the floods seen in Pakistan over the last two
In a recent Foreign Policy article titled "Losing
Polio: Did the CIA Ruin Our Chance to Eradicate One of the World’s Worst Diseases?" Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer Laurie
Garrett noted that after India declared the last 12 months "polio
free," the three countries that account for the last stubborn
vestiges of the polio scourge worldwide are Nigeria, Pakistan and
"Nigeria has struggled with polio control since 2003, when
a group of imams in the country’s Islamic north declared the vaccine
was deliberately contaminated with either HIV or contraceptives, the
result of an alleged CIA campaign to wipe out Muslim children,"
Garrett wrote. "The conspiratorial view of polio control was
shared by some imams and Muslim politicians in Pakistan and
"So last July, when it was disclosed that the CIA had used
Afridi and a false vaccination campaign to gain access to the
Abbottabad complex, I co-authored a warning
with Dr. Orin Levine that the CIA had 'destroyed credibility
that wasn’t its to erode.’ We wrote: 'It was the very
trust that communities worldwide have in immunization programs that
made vaccinations an appealing ruse. But intelligence officials
imprudently burned bridges that took years for health workers to
Our U.S. leaders like to say how Pakistan has let us down, but
the truth is we have used them just as they have used us. It’s
the nature of the game. But having dropped our bombs and inserted
and intelligence agents on their soil, our exploitation leaves a
much more potent legacy, and extends to a civilian population
already wracked by extreme poverty
There is nothing resembling our health care system in Pakistan.
Consider the story of honors student Kamran Khan 13, who
set himself on fire and died in Pakistan in March. Reports
indicate that he was ashamed his family could not afford the school
uniform and that he had fought bitterly with his mother, a maid, who
had given up a baby girl two years before because the family could
not afford her. Sadder yet, is that his mother could not pay to tend
to his badly burned body, and he died a few days later without
[Shahnaz] Bibi collected donations and took her burned son in a relative’s
car to two hospitals in Peshawar — but one would not admit
him, and the other did not have a burn unit. She then took the boy
to a military hospital with a burn center in the town of Kharian in
said the hospital wanted 500,000 rupees, or about $5,500, to treat
Kamran — a sum impossibly beyond her reach. By then, Kamran
was near death.
mother ended up selling her gold earrings to pay for an ambulance to
transport her son’s body back to their home town for burial.
could only imagine how poor polio-wracked children in Pakistan
gulping for air, or paralyzed for life, would be treated by this
Darwinian health care system. Men and women in their 60s in America
still living in iron lungs today — do you think the Pakistani
people, 60 percent of whom are living
on less than $2 a day, could invest even a fraction of those
health care costs over time?
Dr. Afridi might have thought he was doing his duty by helping to catch
Osama bin Laden (which is exactly how
Washington portrays the relationship, though reports indicate he did
not know who the CIA was targeting at the time). But did Afridi know
of Washington’s nasty habit of leaving those who help us
behind, often to face the horrific consequences alone?
the tale of our Iraqi translators and informants. "Thousands
… who worked for now-departed American troops live in fear"
of retribution in Iraq, according to reports. They are waiting for a
way out. Many former U.S. soldiers have petitioned hard to get them
asylum. Some finally managed to squeeze through a brief window of
opportunity between 2008 and 2010. But
that spigot has closed, according to reports, thanks to two fool
Iraqi immigrants who were fingered inside the U.S. for allegedly
plotting to send weapons and cash to al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010.
immigration advocates are telling Iraqis seeking entry into the U.S.
that "the urgency is lost" and "not to count on
America," according to a USA
Today report in
In 2007, New Yorker writer George Packer traveled through
Iraq and several refugee camps in neighboring countries and became
disillusioned by what he saw as a "betrayal" of Iraqis
who once worked as translators for the American cause. He penned a
play called simply, "Betrayed," which has since been
performed at theaters nationwide.
"They had no one to defend them,"
said before a June 2011 run at Stanford University.
"They didn’t have their own militia. They didn’t
have the Iraqi military police, who often thought of them as
traitors. And they didn’t have the Americans. Individual
Americans cared, but institutionally, the U.S. government was
washing their hands of this terrible problem."
Children with polio in Sierra Leone (courtesy of the World Health Organization)
So far, Congress has reacted to the tale
of Dr. Afridi with anger over his jailing and the Senate
Appropriations Committee has even moved
to slash its foreign aid to Pakistan by $33 million
– one million for each year of his sentence. Meanwhile, Rep.
Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.., has
introduced legislation that would
accelerate efforts to get Afridi released from jail, give him U.S.
citizenship and award him the Congressional Gold Medal.
It’d be hard to say Afridi didn’t get a raw deal: his court proceedings appear unfair and stacked against
him (strangely, the official charge is he associated with a militant
group, which his family denies) and
until last week, he hadn’t spoken to
his family in a year. U.S. officials say they’ve been working
"quietly" behind the scenes for a lower sentence or even
release. Question is, if he were such a hero, why wasn’t more
done for him in the first place?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 76, Lindsay Graham,
56, Richard Durbin, 67, and John McCain, 75, all children of the
polio era, have all made fervent declarations in Afridi’s
defense, but they never once question the ethics and wisdom of
paying a local doctor to set up a pretextual hepatitis B vaccination
drive among a populace already piqued by conspiracy theories and
In fact, if
you listen to the entire webcast of the
Senate committee hearing where the aid was cut, the only time the
vaccination program is mentioned at all is when Feinstein says
Afridi "is not a spy," and that he was running a
"bona fide immunization program." Not true,
according to reports. And Graham even goes
so far to say the doctor made Pakistan "safer."
Today, stories of the "dreaded crippler" in the U.S.
are like nuggets of history, summer campfire stories. In Pakistan it
is a reality and it may be getting worse. Everywhere.
More from Laurie Garrett: "With millions of children in India and some other
countries now experiencing waning immunity, time is decidedly
against us," she wrote. "If wild polio hasn’t been eliminated from the final three
countries by the end of 2012, the virus could well resurge in sites
of alleged eradication, all over the world. And thousands will
But at least we got bin Laden.