In what must be something of a nightmare for the World Health Organisation, samples of a strain of polio virus linked to the city of Sukkur have been found in Cairo. Egypt has been polio-free since 2004 and is not going to welcome this development.
There was always the possibility that Pakistan, along with the two other countries where polio remains endemic, would export the disease. Ours is a highly mobile population, and Pakistani communities exist in most countries in the world, not only those where Muslims are a majority.
The fact that we do not have ‘herd immunity’ to polio and that those seeking to eradicate it have increasingly become the target of extremists, is a matter of profound concern.
In response to this development, the PM’s Monitoring and Coordination Cell is advising that permanent vaccination counters be set up at the international departure lounges of all airports, and that all children under five vaccinated before they leave the country.
So concerned are the Egyptians that authorities there have ordered immediate vaccination of all children under five in the areas where the samples were found.
This takes us another step closer to the threatened travel ban by the WHO on Pakistanis moving outside our borders by land, sea or air, unless they can provide documentary evidence of vaccination. Our failure to get on top of the polio problem – and the fact that the UN has suspended the vaccination programme after the death of nine health workers at the end of last year – is going to cost us dear.
Concerns have been expressed that the government will become so preoccupied with the upcoming elections that other priorities, polio included, will fall by the wayside. This must be avoided at all costs. Pakistan came close to eradicating the disease six years ago, but internal instability and a pernicious culture of myth and misinformation that surround the polio eradication programme did their deadly work.
This is a fight Pakistan has to win, and the comity of nations will be watching closely – because they have no desire to catch this disease.