ISLAMABAD, March 20: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned Pakistan that if the polio virus was not contained, it could face serious consequences such as travel and visa restrictions and sanctions imposed by countries across the world.

Dr Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General of Polio, Emergencies and Country Collaboration, WHO, told Dawn after a press conference organised by country office of WHO that lately the global community had been expressing its anxiety over the widespread prevalence of the virus in Pakistan.

“Why would countries that have invested millions of dollars for the eradication of polio tolerate any possibility of the virus traveling from Pakistan to their country,” the key global official of the WHO rationalised, and elaborated: “Some countries in their individual capacities want to impose travel restrictions that are not in the benefit of Pakistan and must be avoided. It must be clarified that WHO is not a party to any of those plans.”

Dr Aylward said that many countries were asking for steps similar to those taken by Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia has issued a special travel advisory for Pakistan pilgrims that requires Pakistani authorities to ensure that all visitors to Saudi Arabia are vaccinated. Hence, visitors are expected to be vaccinated before they leave Pakistan and also get vaccinated once they arrive at their airports.”

The concerns of the international community are certainly not unfounded. Over the last three years, the statistics on polio have been damning, and belie all claims made by the federal and provincial governments of taking concrete steps to eliminate the virus.

In 2011, Pakistan recorded 198 polio cases, contributing 30 per cent of global polio cases. From January to mid-March, 14 new cases have been reported, and so far its contribution is 15 per cent. Pakistan and Nigeria are the only two countries where polio is prevalent.

“We will be reviewing Pakistan’s performance in the third week of May during the World Health Assembly session and decide the future course of action,” Dr Aylward said. The World Health Assembly session is attended by the health ministers from across the globe.

Earlier briefing the local media over the polio virus Dr Aylward said that if the virus stays in Pakistan despite all efforts, then over $12 billion would have been wasted and millions of children would be vulnerable globally once again.

“We are focussing all our efforts to contain the polio virus because we don’t want the disease to stay and affect millions of Pakistani children,” he said.

Dr Ala Alwan, the regional director of WHO, in the press conference, said Pakistan’s health bill was swelling since non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cancer were also on the rise. With polio virus spread, he said, the picture is grimmer.

To rally support for polio eradication campaigns and allay fears, WHO has employed the services of well-known philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, and his charity.

“Mr Edhi has assured his full support and Edhi ambulances will be at polio vaccination points across the country, and officials from his charity will also take part in polio vaccination campaigns,” Dr Alwan briefed the media.

A video message by Mr Edhi was also screened by the WHO officials at the press conference.

“Don’t trust any rumours linked with polio vaccination. Ensure that your children are vaccinated against the polio virus. Edhi’s officials and our ambulances will now be part of the anti-polio drive and will assist the WHO officials across Pakistan,” Mr Edhi tells people.