Afridi’s help to reach Osama puts health workers lives at risk
* Health workers, vaccination drives will be affected when people find out that local doctors were helping the CIA
By Iqbal Khattak
PESHAWAR: The disclosure that a senior Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Health Department official helped the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) track down al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad before the May 2 operation by Washington “puts the lives of health workers at risk”, Pakistani and international health organisations fear.
A British newspaper alleged that Dr Shakil Afridi, an agency surgeon in Khyber Agency, ran a “fake vaccination drive” in Abbottabad to try to get DNA samples from the family members of Osama bin Laden. Afridi, however, is missing since the last week of May, as security agencies have detained several “Pakistani agents” working for the CIA who took part in the anti-Osama operation.
“I think with this revelation our polio vaccination drive will be affected,” a senior FATA Health Department official told Daily Times on Saturday. “The health workers will be suspected of being part of any plot the CIA may be staging to arrest the remaining wanted men,” he said.
Pakistan is among very few countries where polio has not been completely eliminated yet and the government and world health organisations run vaccination drives repeatedly to keep more children from being crippled by the disease.
The reason for repeated campaigns is the unwillingness of conservative families, who always treat such campaigns with great suspicion.
“Dr Shakil Afridi’s alleged involvement in the anti-Osama operation will have a negative fallout on the future of anti-polio vaccination drives in the Tribal Areas,” the FATA Health Department official warned. He said if the issue of Dr Afridi continued to make headlines in the media it would “strengthen the hands of the elements who had opposed the vaccination in the past”.
An international humanitarian organisation working in health sectors worldwide, also joined the concerns of the FATA Health Department, saying, “The US government’s alleged misuse of a vaccination campaign in Pakistan for counter-terrorism purposes constitutes a dangerous abuse of medical care, which threatens the trust essential for health agencies and humanitarian aid workers to provide lifesaving medical services.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders said that it “Condemns the use of medical aid for military objectives”.
MSF international president Dr Unni Karunakara in a press statement issued in New York on July 14 and received on Saturday via email, said, “Whether the story is true or not, the mere suggestion that the provision of medical care was carried out under false pretences damages public perception of the true purpose of medical action.”
“With all populations in crisis, it is challenging enough for health agencies and humanitarian aid workers to gain access to, and the trust of, communities, especially populations already sceptical of the motives of any outside assistance.”
He went on to lash out at the CIA: “Deceptive use of medical care also endangers those who provide legitimate and essential health services. Furthermore, carrying out an act of no therapeutic or preventative benefit purely for military or intelligence purposes violates medical ethics, which require acting solely on the needs of patients and doing no harm.”
The MSF international president added that impartial humanitarian assistance “requires acceptance from all communities and warring parties – whether national governments, armed opposition movements, international forces, or even criminal groups. In all conflicts or highly politicised environments, this access can only be achieved and maintained over time by actions that demonstrate humanitarian providers are acting only in the interests of those receiving care”.
“The allegation of a fake CIA vaccination campaign constitutes a grave manipulation of the medical act,” said Dr Karunakara. “The risk is that vulnerable communities—anywhere—needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid. The potential consequence is that even basic health care, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it the most.”
After the Guardian report the distressed family of Dr Shakil Afridi also went underground as local media visited their house in the Hayatabad residential district to talk to any member of the family.