ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is still reeling from the fallout of the travel restrictions imposed on it by the World Health Organisation to prevent the spread of polio virus.
The Ministry of National Health Services is expected to hold a meeting on Wednesday with representatives of provincial governments and other stakeholders to discuss the developments following the imposition of WHO restrictions.
The ministry is also likely to hold a press conference to inform the public about the steps being taken by it.
On Tuesday, four women legislators moved a call-attention notice in the National Assembly. Minister for National Health Services, Saira Afzal Tarar, informed the house that the government was developing a strategy to combat the virus. She said provincial health ministers were being taken on board and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was taking personal interest in the matter.
Mr Sharif had met the head of the WHO to discuss the issue, she added.
“Religious scholars are also getting involved with the campaign and the Imaam-i-Kaaba was expected to visit Pakistan soon to augment the government’s efforts,” she said.
Also on Tuesday, Khawaja Salman Rafique, the Punjab chief minister’s adviser on health, told DawnNews that his government would seek to enforce a similar immunisation regime at entry and exit points of the province. Of all the provinces, Punjab is the one with the lowest reported instances of polio.
Mr Rafique said all children entering Punjab, either from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh, would be required to present a proof of immunisation or take polio drops on the spot.
Passengers on various international flights appeared confused on Tuesday and most of them had no idea what the restrictions meant for travellers.
Islamabad airport manager Ayaz Jadoon told Dawn that they had not received any instructions yet about polio certification from the health department. The Civil Aviation Authority was operating a ‘health counter’ to facilitate passengers.
Immunisation counters are operative at Lahore and Karachi airports because of an existing requirement for passengers travelling to India.
Sources said similar counters would soon be operational at Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta airports.
The added burden of acquiring an immunisation certificate has made life difficult for Pakistanis travelling abroad.
“It’s hard enough getting all the documents ready for our visa, now we have to provide proof of vaccination too. This is too much,” said Nida Ahmed, who is scheduled to fly to Kazakhstan for a conference next week. Ms Ahmed said she wasn’t sure what the new rules were. “So I’ll call up the embassy tomorrow and find out whether I need to get vaccinated again.”
Senior citizens were also greatly inconvenienced by the sudden implementation of the WHO travel restrictions. “My aged husband and I spent three hours on Tuesday in the ministry of national health services waiting for someone to administer polio drops to us,” a woman told Dawn.
“We were severely inconvenienced and the ministry was crowded with would-be travellers who had shown up to get shots at the last minute,” she said.
Travel agents also appeared to be unaware of the new rules. Mohammad Khurram, who runs a travel agency in Blue Area, said he had no idea what the restrictions would mean for those who had already bought their tickets. “When the government makes an announcement, we will be able to facilitate our customers accordingly,” he said.
Meanwhile, the WHO sent a 16-page specimen ‘International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis’ to the ministry of national health services, which the international body recommended be used by travellers. The certificate requires minute details, such as the name, details of the brand name, manufacturers and batch number of the vaccine administered.
A WHO official told Dawn that the travel restrictions on Pakistan came into effect from May 5. “It is now mandatory for the government to ensure that each individual who wishes to travel abroad should have proof of vaccination,” he said.
The official said that although other countries were not under obligation to prevent travellers from Pakistan from entering, they had the prerogative to turn back passengers who failed to produce proof of immunisation.
Obtaining a certificate
Health officials advised those intending to travel abroad should visit public sector hospitals for vaccination and to obtain a bona fide certificate of immunisation.
Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences Vice Chancellor Dr Javed Akram told Dawn that they had ordered nearly 4,000 immunisation certificates which would be available to anyone who came to the hospital for a polio shot.
“The certificates will be issued free of cost and from the time you walk into the hospital, the process should take a mere 15 minutes. The certificate will be valid for one year and if someone misplaces it, they can always get a duplicate issued from the same place,” he said.
“Counters are being established at airports, but they will be used only in case of an emergency. I would advise everyone to come to get their certificates from Pims.”
Dr Akram debunked rumours that the polio vaccine was unsafe for adults, explaining that even though they might have been inoculated as children, it was perfectly safe for adults to consume a few more drops of the vaccine.
“The virus attacks the spinal cords of children less than five years of age. Although adults cannot contract the disease per se, they can still carry the virus,” he said.
Several embassies in Islamabad were unclear what the WHO’s travel restrictions meant for Pakistanis wishing to travel abroad.
“The US embassy in Islamabad is evaluating the WHO’s recommendations. At the moment the embassy has no requirements regarding proof of vaccination from visitors travelling to the United States,” said Meghan Gregonis, a spokesperson for the US embassy.
An official of the Indian High Commission told Dawn their their government already required travellers from Pakistan to produce proof of vaccination, without which they could not apply for an Indian visa.