The US and Polio

Last week, I spoke to a reporter for The Nation’s Health about why 13 deans wrote to the President last year about the danger of politicizing vaccines. Polio is a vivid recollection for many people of my generation. I still remember the summer when I was an elementary school student, and polio struck our neighborhood. One day, the sister of a boy in my class was diagnosed with polio. Soon after, we were told she’d died. Everyone was afraid. It was the same kind of fear we had about nuclear war–that somewhere, a menace was lurking, and we never knew when it might strike. (This, of course, was during the same time that Americans were building fallout shelters and trying to make ethical, if theoretical, decisions about who they would allow in.) Polio, and the fear that accompanies disease outbreaks, should be long gone. We have the means to do that. The disease can be eradicated. But it won’t happen if ordinary people are afraid of the vaccine that prevents polio.

The fact that polio vaccination was used as a political tool in deadly global politics in Pakistan makes me especially angry. It is outrageous that some vaccinators were murdered, and some children who should have received vaccines did not. When vaccines are misused for political ends, we undermine trust in all vaccines. If the U.S. government used vaccines as tools of war once, then some people may wonder about us and the vaccines.

I was passionate about signing the letter that the deans sent to President Obama. The president and his key staff members in homeland security and counterterrorism deserve credit for paying attention to our letter and for committing in May, 2014, that “[The CIA] will make no operational use of vaccination programs or vaccination workers.”

As we wrote, “…today we are on the verge of completely eradicating polio…” I hope that countries where polio has been on the rise—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria—will redouble their efforts and will not make excuses for denying their countries the benefits of 20th-century science and medicine. No child should die of, become crippled by or fear a disease we can prevent.


Tagged  cia, vaccines

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