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Bioethicist: Where is outrage over Pakistan polio vaccine ban?

The world's reaction to a powerful Taliban commander in northern Pakistan banning the vaccination of 161,000 children against polio, in retaliation against frequent drone attacks by the United States, has been more or less "no comment." That is unacceptable.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur says unless the U.S. stops its frequent drone attacks against the Taliban, he won’t let doctors and public health officials give out free oral polio vaccine to children any longer in North Waziristan, a tribal area on the Afghanistan border. This threat comes at a time of huge progress in eradicating polio worldwide.  

By deciding to hide behind babies as a way to fight drones, Bahadur has chosen a strategy that is cruel, immoral and highly unlikely to have any effect on the use of drones. His action ought to bring loud moral condemnation upon him from all quarters of the globe. So, where are world’s major religious and political voices united in loud condemnation of the crass act of targeting the helpless children of Pakistan and Afghanistan with polio?

In reaching his decision to sacrifice the children of his region, Bahadur noted that the CIA had run a phony vaccination campaign in Pakistan to try to obtain DNA from some of Osama bin Laden’s children. The doctor who was allegedly involved, Dr. Shakil Afridi, was recently sentenced by a tribal court in Peshawar to 33 years in prison. Embarrassment over putting a humanitarian vaccine program to use in the effort to find and kill bin Laden may partly account for the relative silence that has greeted Bahadur’s ban on vaccination. 

But the notion that letting polio run amok in Pakistan and Afghanistan will teach the world about the horror of drone attacks is manifest lunacy. There are plenty of legal, diplomatic and political forums to debate the morality of drone warfare. The ban on the polio vaccine is not needed to appeal to them.

The success to date in getting rid of this horrific plague stands as a mountain of evidence against those who argue that vaccines don’t work, are not safe, or are nothing but a way for pharmaceutical companies to make a buck. In 1988, the World Health Organization passed a unanimous resolution to eradicate polio from the earth by vaccinating every child. The United Nations, Rotary International, and, later, the Gates Foundation joined the effort. Untold numbers of health care workers from around the globe have dedicated their lives to eradicating the virus.

In 2012, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 73 cases of polio reported from four countries. Almost all of the cases were in three countries where the disease is endemic -- Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Globally, polio cases are at an all-time low, after the virus was eradicated in India last year.

That positive momentum shouldn’t be hindered by a ban on polio vaccination, whatever the motivation or excuse. The silence over this ban sends a very loud message that killing and disabling kids is an acceptable strategy in war. It isn’t. 

The world must make it very clear to Bahadur, and any other leaders tempted to follow his lead, that it will not accept turning back the campaign to eradicate polio, with the certain result of killing and disabling children. 

Arthur Caplan is the Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. After July 1, he will head the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Taliban bans Pakistan polio vaccinations over drone strikes

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