With the story going through so many changes so quickly, the truth about Dr Afridi’s case is cloudier than ever. One thing is clear, though – Dr Afridi did engage in one indefensible act: Using a critical healthcare programme as cover for his activities. Unfortunately, in expressing concern about Afridi’s willingness to risk the credibility of his work, we are forgetting that even this is part of the real threat to healthcare in the country – extremism and conspiracy theories.
It is widely accepted that Dr Afridi was running a fake polio vaccination campaign. What is not clear at this time is whether the polio vaccines were fake, or just the programme he claimed to be part of. This matters quite a deal – what prevents polio is the vaccine, not the programme. If the vaccines were real, the doctor could at least be forgiven for improving prevention, even if under false circumstances.
The real threat to polio prevention programmes, though, is not that people are concerned that they are being given treatments that won’t work – it’s that they believe these treatments are part of a dangerous conspiracy against them. And they didn’t get this idea from Dr Afridi, they got it from extremists.
Underlying those factors [preventing polio eradication], however, is an intense mistrust among some Pakistanis for the vaccines and the people who supply and administer them. Radical clerics seed rumors that vaccines are un-Islamic because they are made from substances derived from pigs, or that they cause infertility. Some clerics try to convince parents that polio vaccines are made from the urine of Satan.
The reluctance by some Pakistanis to trust polio vaccination programs is also driven by a belief that the U.S. is behind the campaigns. Anti-American sentiments are more fervent than ever in the country, stoked this year by the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, as well as by President Obama’s decision to not inform Pakistani leaders in advance about the U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in May.
Before anyone had ever heard of Dr Afridi, they were already being told not to accept polio vaccines because of crazy conspiracy theories being spread by extremist Imams. Dr Afridi’s acts will be used by extremists to play to the irrational fears they have already planted, but Dr Afridi is not the source of the mistrust of polio vaccine.
Using a critical health care programme as cover for his activities was wrong – even prominent Americans are saying it was a mistake. But whether Dr Afridi is punished or not for this mistake, Pakistan will continue to be plagued by a disease wiped out in the developed world not because of Dr Afridi – not even because of the CIA. Our children will continue to die unnecessarily until we are willing to eradicate the plague of extremism that allows polio to spread. Until then, Dr Afridi is just a distraction.