After Osama bin Laden was killed last May, reports emerged that months earlier, the Central Intelligence Agency had held a vaccination drive in an attempt to collect DNA from his relatives and help confirm his whereabouts in Abbottabad, where he was thought to be hiding. The CIA would not confirm or deny the reports, but officials at the World Health Organization and UNICEF were concerned. Rumors could be just as damaging as actual CIA involvement, sowing mistrust of immunization efforts in Pakistan, where polio is endemic and some 150,000 children die annually of vaccine-preventable diseases.
According to The New York Times and The Washington Post, an anonymous U.S. official alleged the CIA recruited a Pakistani doctor to offer free hepatitis B shots. By comparing DNA samples gathered during the drive with those from Bin Laden’s deceased sister, they hoped to confirm whether the family was nearby. The Times reported the tactic failed to collect their DNA. Dennis King, who heads UNICEF’s polio eradication unit in Pakistan, says that in September a handful of parents refused vaccines for their children after hearing of the scheme, but the impact appears relatively small. Far more parents, King says, refuse out of safety concerns and suspicions about effectiveness.