Pakistan bracing for polio travel restrictions
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan scrambled Tuesday to meet new international travel restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of polio, including setting up vaccination points at all airports, officials said.
The World Health Organization has declared the spread of polio an international public health emergency and identified Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon as having allowed the virus to spread beyond their borders. It recommended that those three governments require citizens to obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio before traveling abroad.
The restrictions will be a heavy burden, but Pakistan is convening emergency meetings and implementing measures such as setting up desks for polio vaccinations at all airports to comply with them, Health minister Saira Afzal Tarar told the private Dawn TV station.
“It is an extraordinary situation,” she said.
Another daunting task is to determine how much vaccine would be required for thousands of people traveling abroad from Pakistan on a daily basis, she said. She said the authorities had been tasked to compile the data as soon as possible and the Pakistani military was already coordinating with civilian authorities to help secure health workers in dangerous areas.
The vast majority of new polio cases are in Pakistan, a country that an independent monitoring board set up by the WHO has called “a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission.” The disease is largely found in the northwest where Islamic militants make it difficult to reach children for vaccination and spread propaganda claiming the vaccine makes boys sterile.
Dozens of polio workers have been killed over the last two years in Pakistan as Islamic militants accuse them of spying for the U.S. government. Those suspicions stem at least partly from the disclosure that the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to uncover Osama bin Laden’s hideout by trying to get blood samples from his family under the guise of a hepatitis vaccination program. U.S. commandos killed the al-Qaida leader in May 2011 in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
Ayesha Raza Farooq, who heads the polio eradication cell at the Pakistani prime minister’s office, said the recommendation was being taken seriously. “We will try our best to ensure that the WHO doesn’t need to extend the restrictions after review in six months,” she told another private station Capital TV.
WHO figures say Pakistan recorded 91 cases of polio last year and 59 so far this year.
Nearly 90 percent of the cases come from Pakistan’s tribal region of North Waziristan, which is under complete control of militants and inaccessible to health workers, said the health minister.
“So, I would say that we have an extra ordinary situation, that shouldn’t be compared with any other country.”
Associated Press Writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.