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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethical Issues with Vaccines and Pandemics

Larry Brilliant

Larry Brilliant

Larry Brilliant Visits the Ethics Center

Elliot Zanger

In a recent meeting of the Center’s Emerging Issues group, epidemiologist and founding President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, Larry Brilliant, commented on the complicated history of vaccines in parts of the Islamic world and the status of Skoll’s five global threats.

Brilliant, who worked with WHO to achieve the eradication of smallpox, discussed a couple of situations where a lack of ethics has led to resistance to the polio vaccine in the Islamic world.

First, in the northern, Muslim part of Nigeria, as a direct result of American soldiers torturing Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib, all American programs were suspended for a time, including the polio vaccine program.

Second, in an effort to gain valuable information on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, the CIA planted fake polio vaccinators in Pakistan. In the years that have followed the killing of Bin Laden, 80 actual polio vaccinators have been killed by the Taliban in Pakistan.

If we had behaved in an ethical way in these examples, Brilliant argued, we wouldn’t have created unnecessary anti-vaccine fervor in the Muslim world.

Brilliant ended the meeting by briefly discussing the five threats initially outlined during the creation of the Skoll Global Threats Fund: climate change, pandemics, water security, nuclear proliferation, and the Middle East conflict.

Brilliant pointed out that many of the threats are intertwined.  While he feels optimistic that we’ve created speedbumps to slow down the risk of pandemics, he noted that it’s difficult to separate water security from climate change, and those issues from the threat of war. Many say that both the Syrian civil war and the war in Darfur began with a drought. India, China, and Pakistan, three adjacent countries with nuclear weapons, are arguing over rights to water derived from the Himalayan snowpack. In this way, Brilliant illustrated how the five global threats are deeply entangled with one another.

Apr 29, 2016

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