What does Osama bin Laden have to do with polio?

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 1:09 p.m. MDT

In this Wednesday, May 30, 2012 photo, Fariha, a 13-month-old girl whose legs are bound in small plastic braces, tries to use her legs at her family's house in Aziz Khan Ghari, Pakistan, outside Peshawar. Earlier this year Fariha was diagnosed with polio, one of the latest cases in Pakistan.

Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press

Polio is a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease. Since 1985 global incidents of polio have dramatically declined. So effective has the fight against polio been that, according to the nonprofit organization End Polio Now, the world is 99 percent of the way to eradicating the illness completely. Only three countries continue to have cases of polio: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

A January 2012 CBS report noted that in 2011, 198 cases of polio were reported in Pakistan. That is a 15-year high, and the largest number of cases recorded anywhere in the world, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a joint program to eradicate polio led by the World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund and Rotary International.

In Pakistan, UNICEF has recruited what it calls "social mobilizers" to go into the slums to try to educate the people about the polio virus and promote vaccinations for it. Typically these slums have no government offices, no public schools, no medical facilities. The children are filthy because of lack of education about hygiene. Donkeys and stray dogs roam the streets and water supply is contaminated with sewage. These, according to a report from NPR, are the perfect conditions for the polio virus to breed.

But Pakistanis are reluctant to line their children up for vaccinations. In-country health officials report that efforts to vaccinate children have been frustrated by the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination program last year to gather intelligence on Osama bin Laden.

In a letter to CIA director General David Petraeus in February, InterAction, which represents nearly 200 U.S.-based non-government organizations, expressed “deep concern” about the fake campaign. “Among other factors, international public health officials point to the distrust of vaccines and immunization campaigns as contributing to the lack of progress in eradicating the disease in Pakistan,” it said.

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