- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2011

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistani officials and international health groups expressed concern Wednesday that an unconfirmed report of a phony CIA vaccination program meant to obtain DNA evidence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden could harm legitimate immunization programs in the country.

This fear is especially pronounced because of the rising problem of polio. Pakistan was the only country to record an increase in cases of the crippling disease last year and now has the highest incidence of polio in the world.

Vaccination programs to combat polio and other diseases in Pakistan already were hampered by fighting with Islamist militants that blocked access by health workers to certain areas, especially in the northwest. Some Taliban commanders also have declared vaccines as against Islam.

This week, the British Guardian newspaper reported that the CIA recruited a Pakistani doctor to run a hepatitis B vaccination drive in the northwest town of Abbottabad in March in an attempt to get DNA from bin Laden’s children and confirm the al Qaeda chief was holed up there. The story cited unnamed Pakistani and U.S. officials.

The newspaper said it wasn’t clear if the alleged scheme helped confirm bin Laden’s presence, but cited one source as suggesting the attempt failed. The U.S. went ahead with a covert Navy SEAL raid that killed the al Qaeda chief in Abbottabad on May 2.

The CIA declined comment on the report when contacted by the Associated Press.

Pakistani health officials held meetings about the alleged CIA scheme Tuesday and expressed concern that it could have a negative impact on immunization programs in other areas of the northwest, especially in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border, said a Pakistani official involved in polio eradication efforts. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Michael O’Brien, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pakistan, expressed concern that the reported CIA program could make it more difficult for medical officials in other parts of the country to administer critical vaccines.

“Anything that compromises the perception and impartiality of medical personnel undermines the activities of medical personnel everywhere, especially in places where access to health care is badly needed and security conditions for health care workers are already difficult,” Mr. O’Brien said.

The tribal region along the Afghan border is the main sanctuary for Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Pakistan, and many residents already harbor deep suspicions about the Pakistani government and its international partners.

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