Last month the CIA announced that it was ceasing to utilize vaccination programs as covers for spy missions in response to an uproar from the public health community:
“Three years after the CIA used an immunization survey as a cover in itshunt for Osama bin Laden, the White House has promised that the agency will never again use a vaccination campaign in its operations, an official said Monday.” [Washington Post]
CIA’s decision was in response to a letter sent by deans from leading public health schools:
“The deans wrote to President Obama in January 2013 to protest the precedent set when the CIA used Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani surgeon, to seek information about bin Laden under the guise of conducting a hepatitis immunization survey in the northwest city where the al-Qaeda leader was later killed in a raid. The goal of the immunization survey was to obtain fluid containing DNA from relatives living near the bin Laden residence. The effort failed, and Afridi was convicted of treason in Pakistan. He has been sentenced to 23 years in prison. ” [Washington Post]
In short, the deans extrapolated that the usage of public health interventions and programs as spy covers not only jeopardizes the public but also risks the people implementing these public health programs:
“This disguising of an intelligence-gathering effort as a humanitarian public health service has resulted in serious collateral consequences that affect the public health community,” the deans wrote.” [Washington Post]
This topic ignited several debates following CIA’s decision. However, has the damage already been done? That is, has the knowledge of the previous utilization of a public health program as a covert spy mission essentially escalate suspicion of public health programs in conflict areas? What if governments in war-torn regions refuse much needed international public health interventions in fear of security concerns? Does this not automatically place vulnerable and disease riddled population in much greater risk? Its one of those predicaments that no one can argue satisfactorily. Is it wrong to utilize public health programs as covert spy missions if the purpose and result rids of dangerous and lethal terrorists? However, it will be interesting to see the fall-out of this decision in the years to come, especially when new and old diseases are ravaging vulnerable populations.