Towards the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, the Pakistani media repeatedly warned that if the country does not curtail the spread of the polio virus, it would be highly likely that travelers will have to obtain a polio vaccination certificate before traveling abroad. It was during this time that India, declaring itself polio free following 3 years of not having a single case, imposed this condition.
Yet, few thought that soon they would have to queue up to take the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) to travel to other countries. “We had been hearing this for some time, but we never thought this would actually happen, it is annoying but I guess we all have to secure the future of our children and children in other countries” says Sonia Junejo who had come to the local immunization center to get the certificate.”
In May 2014 the WHO recommended that any one traveling from Pakistan should carry this document and the Pakistani Government plans to implement this recommendation from June 1st. While this might seem inconvenient by travelers, health officials feel it should not be taken as a restriction but rather an opportunity to eradicate polio. The head of the immunization program in Sindh explained that not everyone should come to get the certificate but instead only those who have a valid visa or tickets for travel. “We only want to target those adults who are traveling, this will help us utilize the vaccine better. I would also like to mention that as result of the restriction, people have become aware, you should look at the crowd in my office, everyone is talking about polio!”
However there was confusion and panic among travelers following the days that WHO made the announcement. People had several questions. Where do we get the certificate? How long is it valid for? What documents should I have on me? I am pregnant can I take OPV?
The government of Pakistan and UNICEF sought the help of the media to spread awareness regarding the matter. Newspapers highlighted the issue while the electronic media started to show how the certificate is obtained and tried to answer these questions. UNICEF started a social media campaign in which people were encouraged to take selfies when taking polio drops and to tweet them or share them on Facebook. A hashtag and catch phrase I did my part to #endpolio now it’s your turn #Pakistan, were used for Twitter and Facebook.
The campaign is barely two weeks old and already hundreds have posted their pictures, which will only increase once the recommendation is officially imposed on the 1st of June. UNICEF also made a short awareness video on how to get the certificate made answering the questions listed above and disseminated it through social media.
All this together has resulted in an awareness movement and there is a buzz surrounding polio in Pakistan like never before. It is being discussed at dinner parties, on buses, and in offices that have nothing to do with polio. It is actually the first time that the issue is being taken seriously even among people living in localities where polio has not struck for more than a decade.
Also given that the travel recommendations are a result of Pakistan exporting the virus, there is a nationalism of sorts that has come forward. “We cannot be the last country to eradicate polio, we do not want to hang our heads in shame. I was not aware of the situation that we are one of only three countries to have the virus strain, this came to my knowledge only when it became compulsory for me to get this certificate made. I never even thought of polio before” says Khaled Khan who is traveling to the Malaysia for business. The responsibility of protecting the children is now also with all individuals, not only the government.
The reason behind targeting traveling adults is that they can be carriers of the virus, and when they cross borders they can easily excrete it into the environment. Unlike human beings the virus does not need a visa or a passport to travel. Taking 2 drops of OPV not only prevents the spread, but also kills the virus in the environment through excretion which inevitably benefits the children of Pakistan and other countries.
Despite the recent buzz one must not forget the real task at hand – immunizing approximately 37 million children under the age of five multiple times throughout the year. The Government of Pakistan conducts polio drives on a monthly basis, with National Immunization Days and Short Interval Additional Doses, and also conducts special weekly campaigns for high risk areas. Experts feel that if there are good quality campaigns and stronger transit point vaccination units, they can succeed in banishing polio once and for all.
Abid Hasan is UNICEF’s Media Officer for the polio program in Sindh, Pakistan. He has a bachelors in Sociology and Development Studies from the University of Sussex and a Masters in Urban Economic Development from the Development and Planning Unit, University College London. Prior to joining UNICEF he has 7 years of experience as a journalist working for two of Pakistan’s leading media organizations.