Blog post

How to combat mistrust of Western health workers?

6 min read
10 Jan 2015

When the Ebola epidemic spread through West Africa in 2014, humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross stepped in to help combat the outbreak. However, in some regions they were greeted with mistrust and hostility. In rural Guinea for instance, many believed that the Red Cross had fabricated stories about Ebola in order to steal body parts, and did not co-operate with advice on hygiene and safe burial practices [1]. In Liberia, there were rumours that Ebola had been intentionally brought to Africa by Western countries [2]. As a result, efforts to halt the spread of the disease were slowed down.


This is just one of many examples of mistrust towards Western aid workers, which both undermines ongoing health programs, and makes any programs planned for the future difficult to successfully implement. In order to tackle this attitude, it is first necessary to understand the often complex factors that cause it. This article will present several examples of the circumstances that breed mistrust, and discuss ways to move forward from this and develop a positive rapport with aid recipient countries.

Malpractice in Africa

Suspicion of Western health workers does not arise without reason. Cases of medical malpractice, unethical drug trials and espionage have bred mistrust in many parts of the world. We begin the discussion with a focus on Africa. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, there have been several high-profile examples of Western health workers deliberately harming or even killing African patients under the pretence of carrying out research, with some perpetrators going unpunished [3].

More recently, in 1996, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer went into northern Nigeria to carry out a trial for a new drug, named Trovan, against meningococcal meningitis. However, Pfizer faced allegations of ethical misconduct, including not warning African patients of potential side effects and carrying out the research without permission from an ethics committee [4]. An “illegal trial of an untested drug” damaged the reputation of Western pharma in Nigeria, and may have made the population mistrusting of future interventions, such as the polio vaccination campaign.

In 1996, the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” campaign set out to eradicate the disease by 2000, but despite intensive immunisation, surveillance and education, the campaign faced an obstacle. In 2003, religious leaders in northern Nigeria issued a boycott of the vaccination, claiming that the vaccine was contaminated with chemicals that cause infertility, cancer, and HIV [5]. The predominantly Muslim community in the north of the country was wary of Western motives after the war in the Middle East following the September 11 attacks, which they interpreted as a war against Islam. Incidentally, the boycott took place in the same region where Pfizer carried out the Trovan trial.

Another factor contributing to the mistrust is the shortage of even the most basic medicines in Nigeria, and the costs incurred in purchasing them. In such circumstances, an offer of free vaccination combined with an aggressive campaigning strategy was regarded as highly suspicious.

Polio in Pakistan

In a similar situation to that in Nigeria, a polio vaccination program in Pakistan was compromised in 2012-13, after Taliban leaders claimed that the program was a plot by the C.I.A. to sterilise Muslims. Some vaccination delivery teams faced violent assaults, including bomb attacks [6]. The hostility towards the vaccinators was also reflected in public opinion. Among the Pashtun ethnic group in Karachi, which displays a disproportionately high polio incidence, 28% of parents of under-fives did not participate in the polio immunisation, most of them due to the belief that the vaccine was harmful or unnecessary [7].

The suspicion arose after it was revealed that in 2011, the C.I.A. had sent a Pakistani doctor to Osama bin Laden’s compound to obtain blood samples from inhabitants under the cover of hepatitis B immunisation [8,9]. After the plot was exposed, the doctor was jailed for 33 years. However the damage was done, and the resulting setback in the polio program contributed to an increase of polio cases in Pakistan from 32 in 2007 to approximately 600 in 2012 [10]. Considering that global polio eradication was scheduled for the year 2000, the examples of Pakistan and Nigeria show how a single incident (or a compromised drug trial) can potentially reverse many years’ worth of progress.

USAID operation in Cuba

A final example presented here is that of a political agenda gone wrong. From 2009, under the guise of various health and civic programs including an HIV prevention workshop, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent young Latin Americans to Cuba to mobilise potential political activists to stir up rebellion, destabilising the socialist regime [11].

In parallel, USAID funded a Twitter-like social network named ZunZuneo to allow easier communication in Cuba, a country where information and communications are severely restricted. Following allegations of covert operations, USAID, more known for providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief, responded that their actions had to be discreet to protect their staff in a politically-sensitive region, but were not illegal [12].

How to combat the mistrust?

In all the cases presented above, mistrust towards Western health workers arose due to a lack of communication with native populations about the purpose and importance of the health program, or through a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario: a health intervention being used as a cover-up for espionage, breaking the trust for future projects. In the latter scenario, it is important to prevent such incidents from happening in the future. Indeed, the C.I.A. has already issued a statement promising to stop using vaccination programs to gather intelligence [11].

In the case of the Ebola outbreak, hostility towards the Red Cross workers eventually subsided after the workers started encouraging families of the victims to take part in the burials. Giving the families of the deceased a sense of autonomy and participation eased the tension and helped to build trust [1]. Additionally, it has been shown that mobilising trusted community health workers to talk to local populations and refute any conspiracies helped in improving cooperation [2].

The polio elimination program has had success in a number of countries, most notably India, which was declared polio-free in March 2014. Like Pakistan, India is a vast country with a large number of remote, difficult-to-reach communities that have in some cases refused the vaccine [10]. The success of the India immunisation program was partly due to the extensive social mobilisation, and engagement of community and religious leaders. In a study carried out in the Uttar Pradesh state in the north of India, it was shown that such activities resulted in increased vaccine coverage, lower rate of refusal, and a substantial drop in polio cases. An improvement in attitudes towards the vaccine was also observed in Pakistan after social mobilisation campaigns.


To conclude, a number of incidents caused by Western governmental organisations and large pharmaceutical companies have harmed the reputation of Western aid workers in the developing world. Governments and intelligence agencies must be fully aware of the ramifications of using health programs as cover-ups for gathering information. Likewise, tighter control of pharmaceutical trials would reduce incidents of malpractice that could damage the perception of Western aid.

In every case, extensive dialogue with aid recipient populations is essential to ensure understanding and cooperation, and this is best achieved through the engagement of community and religious leaders, who are in a position of trust and authority.


  1. Science Daily: Returning West Africa researcher says distrust of health workers made ebola worse
  2. Oxfam: Mistrust and confusion are allowing Ebola to thrive in West Africa
  3. New York Times: why Africa fears western medicine
  4. British Medical Journal: Pfizer accused of testing new drug without medical approval
  5. PLOS Medicine: what led to the Nigerian boycott of the polio vaccination campaign?
  6. The Independent: Taliban renews assault on Pakistani polio vaccination teams, killing two
  7. Parental perceptions surrounding polio and self-reported non-participation in polio supplementary immunization activities in Karachi, Pakistan: a mixed methods study. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2012;90:822-830
  8. New York Times: C.I.A. Vaccine Ruse May Have Harmed the War on Polio
  9. New York Times: Fallout of Bin Laden Raid: Aid Groups in Pakistan Are Suspect
  10. Achieving polio eradication: a review of health communication evidence and lessons learned in India and Pakistan. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2009;87:624-630
  11. The Guardian: USAID programme used young Latin Americans to incite Cuba rebellion
  12. USAID: Eight Facts About ZunZuneo