13 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty's Polio Vaccine Error, Does it Matter That Much?

Journalist Rob Crilly rightfully criticizes the film Zero Dark Thirty for getting its facts wrong about the CIA vaccination campaign that sought to confirm the DNA of bin Laden's children.
The truth is dangerous enough. But Zero Dark Thirty risks making a difficult situation worse with a clumsy mistake. The real-life Dr Afridi used the cover of a hepatitis vaccination programme, but in the movie his team wear jackets suggesting they are providing polio drops.
For a movie that has claimed to be as factually accurate as possible in the face of criticisms, this is an error that should not have been made. However, Crilly's larger point is to say that the film gives further ammo to polio vaccine conspiracy theorists.
In a country where polio has made a comeback in recent years, the film provides yet another blow for health workers trying to eradicate the disease and prevent Pakistan acting as a reservoir to reinfect the rest of the world. If you think I'm scaremongering or I'm soft on Pakistan, blaming the CIA for its domestic ills, read this interview in one of the local papers, describing how a father crippled by polio allowed his son to be infected – apparently the first case in Karachi for more than a year…
The question that lingers is whether the mistake in the movie has any real impact. The father who did not immunize his children against polio told the Pakistan Tribune, “We thought that the polio campaign was being run by the Jews and Americans, so I wouldn’t let anyone give drops to my child.” He cited the fear based on the collaboration between the CIA and Dr Afridi.

People have been critical of the CIA's use of a vaccination campaign to capture bin Laden. The ban on polio vaccines by the Taliban and the killing of polio vaccine workers across Pakistan have been linked to the revelation of the plot. However, skepticism of vaccines goes further back than the CIA plot.

A UNICEF report on vaccines from 2011 found that there were 22,000 vaccine refusals in Karachi in the first half of 2011. Refusals declined from 23% to 11% in the higher burden areas of Balochistan and Sindh between January and July of that period. That means that progress was being made against attitudes against vaccine campaigns prior to the revelation of the CIA plot.