ISLAMABAD, March 18: Our ambassador to the United States has advised the government to seek US help to ward off possible “travelling restrictions” being imposed on Pakistan for failing to eradicate polio virus.
“There are already moves afoot in the World Health Organisation (WHO) to make vaccinations mandatory for people travelling to and from the polio endemic countries including Pakistan,” said ambassador Sherry Rehman in a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office, which Dawn has seen.
In fact she claims to have averted such a move at the recent WHO Executive Board meeting in Geneva, by firing “a strong demarche here in Washington, to avoid the initiation of any WHO lead processes prejudicial to our interests”.
Polio virus transmission from Pakistan to the world was on the agenda of the WHO board meeting held in January.
Ambassador Rehman’s worries arose because the attacks on and killing of polio vaccinators in Pakistan, the discovery of polio virus in Egypt traceable to Pakistan, and the deaths from measles in the country “have aggravated the concerns of the World Health Organisation and the international community”.
A senior health official in Islamabad explained that if travel restrictions were imposed on Pakistan “by the Independent Monitoring Board, working on behalf of donor agencies based in Geneva, then every Pakistani citizen travelling abroad may require polio vaccination certificate (from local health authorities) and vaccination of polio upon arrival at the destination”.
He recalled that in November 2012 the Independent Monitoring Board, which oversees Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership led by national governments and spearheaded by WHO, had recommended that the three endemic countries - Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan - introduce measures, under the International Health Regulations, ensuring that no one can leave the country without proof of polio vaccination.
“Even elders can transmit polio virus as the polio virus can remain in the intestinal track of humans for many days regardless of their age,” said the health official.
Ambassador Rehman informed the government that the killing of polio vaccinators sent a negative message from Pakistan to the international community.
At least eight polio vaccinators were killed during anti-polio campaigns in Karachi and Peshawar last year.
A senior federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused the departed PPP-led government of failing to protect the vaccinators and manage the Expanded Programme on Immunisation.
“Children missed by the national immunisation campaigns, both in the urban and rural areas, reflected mismanagement,” he said.
One WHO official had commented to Dawn following the campaign conducted in July last year that 6,000 children were missed in Islamabad alone.
Ambassador Rehman too was critical of the weaknesses. “Recent deaths from measles have indicated serious weaknesses in our vaccination programme as the children who died of measles received routine measles vaccine,” she said in her letter.
She recommended the government “to closely engage the US government, the concerned UN agencies, and Melinda and Gates Foundation, particularly in the context of vaccinations”.
No official of the Ministry of Inter Provincial Coordination, which runs the national immunisation programmes, was available for comments.