WITH THE BENEFIT of hindsight, it’s easy to condemn the CIA’s use of a vaccination program in Pakistan as part of the effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The United States has admitted it hired a senior Pakistani doctor to help organize a vaccine program in Abbottabad in an effort to obtain DNA from bin Laden’s family. While real vaccines were provided, the public health community is concerned that the credibility of vaccination programs has been undermined in a part of the world where polio still spreads. While these concerns are legitimate, the US government - in its hunt for a mass murderer in a nation that was hardly helpful - acted reasonably in trying to validate bin Laden’s presence and death in a limited and targeted manner.
While the facts may be murky about the program, a Pakistani doctor apparently paid off local health workers to establish a hepatitis B vaccination project near bin Laden’s compound. According to several reports, a nurse was allowed into the compound, and presumably withdrew blood. The United States has not confirmed whether this program was used to validate bin Laden’s identity when he was killed.
Public health officials argue that trust is what makes or breaks global health efforts; if medical professionals are seen as agents or spies, then nations will suffer and viruses will spread. But the CIA’s efforts took place in a near void for public health programs. Pakistan had already dissolved its Ministry of Health, leaving any vaccination effort to outsiders and local public health officials. Indeed, the US government and nonprofit groups commit more money to public health in Pakistan than that country’s government does.
Genetic proof of bin Laden’s identity likely prevented future strikes that would put innocent lives at risk. In any case, a repeat of the vaccine program is unlikely in light of the uniqueness of the bin Laden hunt. Still, it is wrong to say there are only downsides to such an intelligence effort. Bin Laden is dead, and somehow the United States had the DNA to prove it.