Tuesday, May 20, 2014

CIA-sponsored vaccination programs: spin and tailspin

According to Wikipedia, the concept of 'spin' in public relations circles refers to "... a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favour or against a certain organisation or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, 'spin' often implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics."

It might be worth adding a related concept to the public health vocabulary: tailspin. Tailspin is when, in the attempt to massage facts to persuade the public, you make yourself look completely unreliable or absurd. It is spin gone wrong.

I think today's press conference by the CIA could work as an example of tailspin. Dean Boyd, CIA spokesman, announced that the CIA has stopped (since last August) using vaccination initiatives in Pakistan in its spying programs, or what CIA director more delicately called the 'operational use of vaccination programs.' The CIA has also stopped using such programs to obtain DNA or other genetic material for security purposes. Such use of vaccination programs is not unknown to the local Pakistani population, notably militants hostile to American interests. More than 60 polio workers and security personnel have been killed in Pakistan since 2012.

Admitting the existence and halting of the program seems fair enough. After all, causal -- if not moral  -- responsibility for the deaths of polio workers and the rise of polio cases could be attributed to it. Where does tailspin come in? It is all in what you don't say, and how you say what you do say.

What you don't say: sorry. Apology does not come into it. Or an explanation of why it was stopped, because that might lead back into questions of causality and wrongdoing.

How you say what you do say:

Mr Boyd, the CIA spokesman, said "many obstacles" stand in the way of vaccination programmes, including myths they cause use sterility or HIV and claims they are spy programmes run by Western governments.
"While the CIA can do little about the former, the [CIA] director felt he could do something important to dispel the latter and he acted," Mr Boyd said. 

"It is important to note that militant groups have a long history of attacking humanitarian aid workers in Pakistan and those attacks began years before the raid against the Bin Laden compound and years before any press reports claiming a CIA-sponsored vaccination programme."

The public health implications of vaccination myths is an important topic. The value of this important topic being addressed by a CIA spokesperson, all things considered? Not so much. The virtue of the CIA 'addressing the myth' that that vaccination programs are spy programs by ... stopping using them as spy programs? Smooth. Arguing that attacks on aid workers pre-dated the CIA-sponsored vaccination programs? Great, but where is the data about numbers of aid worker attacks over time? Did they rise after the word about spying came out? No matter, the spokesman has already gone into tailspin ...

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