Osama Bin Laden – a public health story

UEF Bulletin 2017

The period was 2010 and 2011, and Osama Bin Laden was the most wanted person alive. The Americans had been hot on his heels for years, but the elusive man was always a few steps ahead. Pakistan, with its long and porous border with Afghanistan, had all the markings of a good hideout. Finally, tips started coming in and the CIA zoomed in on a quiet concrete building in a northern Pakistani town. A multi-storey complex, home to a family that was keeping it very hush-hush with the neighbours and the neighbourhood. The problem was how to confirm the identity of the suspect – a DNA match maybe? But how would that be possible? What they did was very clever. They created a fake vaccination team, gave them the right appearance and sent them to the door: “Hey, we are here to offer a free vaccination for your kids to protect them against bad diseases.” Since Pakistan is one of the last two countries in the entire world where poliomyelitis is still endemic, and one strategy employed by the Pakistani government is to send vaccinators from door to door so all children get the free vaccine, this fake CIA plot worked flawlessly. They were able to confirm the presence of their target. Now the scene was set, choppers were sent in one dark night and the bad guy was dead. The media high-fived and we marked it as a milestone in the War on Terror. But the story did not really end there, and it entered into the public health domain.  

Through this story, my aim is to remind you that science is not limited just to labs, books and conference halls – it interacts with our daily lives and events, and even with our Bin Laden stories. A fake vaccination team can and should have repercussions. It dented the trust of an uncountable number of families who should have been convinced of the efficacy of the vaccination. Instead, they were tricked. The CIA is gone, but parents in the area are still suspicious, asking, “Is this real or is this another plot by white people against us?” Vaccination has been branded as a conspiracy by the enemy. People are angry and there has even been violence instigated towards real vaccination teams. Since 2011, there have been many attacks on vaccination teams resulting in scores of deaths and injuries. Now vaccinators are not allowed to enter certain areas, and when they do move about, they do so with police guards for safety. A simple, beneficial public health campaign has turned into a nightmare. Science is easier in classrooms, isn’t it?

Sohaib Khan, MBBS, MPH, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition