Physicians for Human Rights has long-condemned the use of health care workers for intelligence work, as it destroys the trust necessary for effective doctor-patient relationships and leaves patients suspicious of doctors’ medical advice. Kidnappings that recently took place in Pakistan are just one example among many of distrust of health care workers, which has served to increase the number of polio cases in the country.
Cynicism about the government vaccination program has abounded in Pakistan for some time. However, skepticism over immunization workers in Pakistan increased considerably following the CIA’s use of a local doctor for a fake immunization campaign in an attempt to confirm the location of Osama bin Laden.
Last week, eleven teachers were reportedly abducted in Pakistan after being mistaken for individuals providing children with much-needed polio vaccinations. A Pakistani government official said that the militants who kidnapped the teachers feared that the vaccines were “a [w]estern ploy to render their males infertile.” They were freed on the condition that the government would stop sending polio teams to the area.
Polio, which is incurable once the disease has been contracted, is currently endemic in only three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Recently, 17 cases of polio have also been confirmed in Syria. The disease can be contracted at any age, but it most often affects children under the age of five, and one in 200 cases leads to permanent paralysis.
Immunization is the only way polio can be prevented. Health care workers must be able to effectively and safely do their jobs in Pakistan in order to eradicate the disease in the country.
As Washington makes its policy decisions on Pakistan, as well as other countries, it must refrain from using medical care as a ruse in its operations. And militant groups in Pakistan must stop targeting those providing vaccines and allow for Pakistan’s children to be protected from the often-fatal disease. Without action from all sides, we’ll continue to see the spread of polio, the paralysis of innocent young children, and the disruption of medical care.
Unfortunately, both governments and militant groups worldwide continue to violate the principle of medical neutrality, which has a strong foundation in international law. Medical neutrality requires noninterference in medical services and the protection of medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport. We can defeat polio – but only if those engaged in vaccination campaigns can do their work safely, and with the full trust of their patients.