The World Health Organization (WHO) has opted to prolong travel restrictions on Pakistan for an additional three months, citing the persistent risk of a polio outbreak within the country. This decision, endorsed by the Emergency Committee on Polio, stems from the ongoing presence of the polio virus in Pakistan, positioning it, alongside Afghanistan, as a global polio threat.
WHO Director-General convened the 37th meeting of the Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations on December 12, 2023. The Committee scrutinized data on wild poliovirus (WPV1) and the cessation of outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2). Technical reports from several countries, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, were presented during the meeting.
Pakistan reported six cases of WPV1 in the preceding year, with a notable increase in environmental detection—60 positive samples identified between September and November. Regions like the Quetta Block in Balochistan, Karachi in Sindh, Islamabad/Rawalpindi, and Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have witnessed the resurgence of polio transmission, prompting intensified vaccination efforts.
Despite successes in southern KP, challenges persist, including political instability, insecurity necessitating police patrols for frontline workers, and vaccination boycotts. The committee unanimously affirmed the ongoing risk of the international spread of the poliovirus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Consequently, it recommended extending the Temporary Recommendations for an additional three months.
The committee also issued a warning regarding the reintroduction of Wild Poliovirus Type 1 (WPV1) in the southern region, driven by persistent transmission in eastern Afghanistan, cross-border spread into Pakistan, and a substantial population of unvaccinated zero-dose children in southern Afghanistan.
Amid these concerns, WHO’s International Travel and Health strongly advises all travelers to polio-affected areas to ensure they are fully vaccinated against polio. Residents in areas with a polio presence are further encouraged to receive an additional dose of either oral polio vaccine (OPV) or inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) within four weeks to 12 months before embarking on their travels.
The extension of travel restrictions underscores the gravity of the situation and the concerted efforts required to mitigate the risk of a polio resurgence in the region.
In the face of these challenges, global health organizations are closely monitoring the situation, emphasizing the need for sustained vaccination campaigns, community engagement, and cross-border collaboration to eradicate disease and protect vulnerable populations.