Pakistan to ramp up Polio measures after WHO warns virus is re-emerging

Mandatory immunisation at border points promised after WHO issues warning about a regional resurgence of the crippling virus

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2014, 1:53am


Pakistan will set up mandatory polio immunisation at its international airports in response to recommendations by the World Health Organisation, the health ministry said yesterday.

The WHO warned on Monday that the crippling disease had re-emerged as a public health emergency, with the virus currently affecting 10 countries worldwide and endemic in three, including Pakistan.

According to the WHO, Pakistan recorded 91 cases of polio last year, up from 58 in 2012. It has also recorded 59 of the world's 74 cases this year, with infections in other countries linked to patients who travelled to Pakistan.

"Special measures will include establishing mandatory immunisation counters at all airports, border crossings and seaports for all travellers," said ministry spokesman Sajid Ali Shah.

The WHO had called on Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria - seen as posing the greatest risk of exporting wild poliovirus - to ensure that all residents and long-term visitors received a polio vaccine between four weeks and a year before travelling abroad.

For urgent travel, at least one vaccine dose should be given before departure, according to the emergency committee, which also called for all travellers to be given certificates proving they had been immunised.

Shah could not confirm whether long-term non-Pakistani residents would also be subject to immunisation.

"That will be decided in a meeting scheduled soon,"

The virus had also recently spread to Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel, and had been found in sewage in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and greater Cairo, said WHO assistant director general Bruce Aylward. It also appeared in China two years ago.

However, "in the majority of these reinfected areas, the viruses circulating actually trace back to Pakistan within the last 12-18 months," Aylward said.

The disease has re-emerged in Pakistan because the Taliban and other militants violently oppose inoculation campaigns and because of public fears that the vaccine leads to infertility.

Militants see the polio campaign as a cover for foreign spying and regularly attack immunisation teams, killing some 56 people since December 2012.

Last month, officials announced they would begin administering polio drops to children at security checkpoints in the country's lawless tribal belt.

India, which recently celebrated the eradication of the disease, announced in December it would require Pakistanis to obtain vaccination certificates six weeks before cross-border travel.

Aylward said Pakistan had done "tremendous" work to restore security in Peshawar after the deadly attacks on health workers had impeded the fight against polio. The race to meet a target to eradicate polio by 2018, under a UN timetable, was still feasible, he said.

"In terms of the 2014 working target to try and stop transmission, from the data presented, clearly Pakistan would be the only country that would be considered 'off track' in terms of its ability to meet that deadline."

WHO chief Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun's declaration of the resurgence of the disease to be a public health emergency of international concern was the first such designation since a 2009 flu pandemic.

Polio passes easily from person to person and can spread rapidly among children, especially in war-torn regions, refugee camps and areas where health care is limited.

The virus can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. The WHO has warned that as long as any child is infected with polio, children everywhere are at risk.

Additional reporting by Reuters

Conflict a factor in polio's resurgence

The near eradication of polio is one of the global public health success stories of the last few decades. But its resurgence comes as a result of war, Islamic militancy and outrage at the activities of the CIA.

Polio returned to Syria last year for the first time since 1999. The collapse of the country's health care system and the displacement of much of its population caused the country's immunisation rate to plummet.

In Cameroon, a lack of public health infrastructure, fears about vaccines and the disruption caused by refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Nigeria and the Central African Republic have been identified as the primary factors behind the disease's resurgence.

In Pakistan, efforts to combat polio have been hampered by the Taliban's targeting of vaccination workers in the country's restive northwest. Just a few weeks ago, vaccinator Salma Farooqi was tortured and killed after being abducted from her home in Peshawar.

The Taliban portrays vaccination drives as a Western plot to sterilise Muslim children or as a cover for spies. The CIA unfortunately lent credence to the latter claim by using a phoney vaccination campaign as a ruse to collect DNA evidence from Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. The disease has also been identified in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.