The White House has promised the United States will not use vaccination programmes as cover for spy operations, after the move was attempted during the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
As Pakistan suffers a resurgence of polio, a top White House official pledged in a letter dated May 16 that intelligence agencies would foreswear the tactic, which is partly blamed for the spread of the crippling disease.
The deans of 12 public health schools had complained about a reported immunization programme conducted by a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, who used a hepatitis vaccine survey in the Pakistani city where bin Laden was later killed in a secret US mission in 2011.
The CIA orchestrated the survey to try to obtain fluid containing DNA from relatives living near the bin Laden residence as a way of positively identifying the terrorist leader, The Washington Post reported. It said the effort failed and the surgeon, Afridi, was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Islamic militant leaders are reluctant to embrace vaccination programmes after attempting to help the CIA track down the al-Qaeda terror chief through a fake vaccine project.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said Obama homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco had assured the deans in a letter that CIA policy as of last August makes clear “the CIA will make no operational use of vaccination programmes, which includes vaccination workers”.
“Similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programmes. This policy applies worldwide, and to US persons and non-US persons alike,” she said.
The letter by Monaco was first reported by Council on Foreign Relations fellow Laurie Garrett on Twitter and by Yahoo News.
Pakistan last week announced that residents of its restive tribal belt would not be able to travel to other parts of the country without getting vaccinated against polio.
The order came days after Pakistan said it would set up mandatory immunization points at airports to help stop its polio outbreak spreading abroad, in response to new guidelines by the World Health Organisation.
The WHO warned that polio has re-emerged as a public health emergency – with the virus affecting 10 countries worldwide and becoming endemic in three, including Pakistan – and urged infected nations to implement vaccine requirements for all international travel.
The Taliban and other militants violently oppose polio vaccination campaigns, seeing them as a cover for foreign spying and regularly attack immunization teams. Some 56 people have been killed in such incidents since December 2012.