What’s gotten attention in America is the plight of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who helped the CIA through his vaccination campaign in the tribal areas and the nearby province where bin Laden was hiding. The doctor was sentenced last week to 33 years in prison for treason, prompting indignant protests from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
U.S. officials shouldn’t treat the Afridi case simply as outrageous behavior by Pakistan. They’re right that the doctor’s actions weren’t treasonous: He was seeking information about terrorist leaders who were Pakistan’s enemies. I hope he’ll be released, but in any event Afridi and his handlers should reckon with the moral consequences of what they did.
Here’s the painful truth: Some people may die because they don’t get vaccinations, suspecting that immunization is part of a CIA plot. The rate of polio infection is rising in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, in part because people believe conspiracy theories about vaccination. If the spread can’t be reversed in these three countries, warns a recent World Health Organization report, “polio eradication will fail.”