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Losing Polio

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
May 31, 2012
Foreign Policy

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Last week, a Pakistani doctor was sentenced by his government to three decades in prison for actions that helped the United States kill Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, in far-off Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a state of emergency in its decades-long battle to eradicate polio. That these two events are intimately connected speaks volumes about new challenges -- political ones -- that threaten to undermine extraordinary global health achievements.

A tribal court in Peshawar sentenced Dr. Shakil Afridi to 33 years' imprisonment for treason -- a penalty considered mild given that the nontribal Pakistani government courts would have ordered death by hanging for the same alleged crime. Afridi collaborated with the CIA's efforts to determine if the secretive family residing behind high compound walls in Abbottabad in 2011 was the bin Laden clan, as U.S. officials suspected. His role was to use a fake hepatitis-B vaccination campaign to gain access to the children in the compound, administer immunization, and retain the needles for use by CIA lab scientists to identify the youngsters's DNA.

Bin Laden was indeed inside the compound, which was raided by U.S. Navy Seals on May 2, 2011, resulting in the death of the al Qaeda leader. U.S. officials later told the New York Times that Afridi had failed to obtain the desired DNA samples, but the physician has publicly admitted to collaborating with the CIA in the vaccine ruse. A chorus of U.S. politicians and Obama administration officials have denounced Afridi's conviction, arguing that the doctor had not acted in betrayal of his country, but in opposition to al Qaeda. This week, tribal court documents were released showing that the doctor's ultimate "crime" was an alleged association with the militant Pakistani insurgent Mangal Bagh, a claim widely dismissed by human rights observers as false.

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