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All travellers crossing the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan are vaccinated against polio, regardless of age

On both sides of the historical 2640-kilometre-long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, communities maintain close familial ties with each other. The constant year-round cross border movement makes for easy wild poliovirus transmission in the common epidemiological block.

As a new tactic in their joint efforts to defeat poliovirus circulation, Afghanistan and Pakistan have introduced all-age polio vaccination for travellers crossing the international borders in efforts to increase general population immunity against polio and to help stop the cross-border transmission of poliovirus. The official inauguration of the all-age vaccination effort took place on 25 March 2019 at the border crossings in Friendship Gate (Chaman-Spin Boldak) in the south, and in Torkham in the north.

Although polio mainly affects children under the age of five, it can also paralyze older children and adults, especially in settings where most people are not well-immunized. Adults may play a role in poliovirus transmission, so ensuring that they have sufficient immunity is critical to simultaneously eliminating poliovirus from the highest risk areas on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

This is particularly important at the two main border crossing points – Friendship Gate and Torkham – given the extensive amount of daily movement. It is estimated that the Friendship Gate border alone receives a daily foot traffic of 30 000. Travellers include women and men of all ages, from children to the elderly.

Pakistan and Afghanistan first increased the age for polio vaccination at the border in January 2016, from children under five years to those up to 10 years old. The decision was in line with the recommendations of the Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations (IHR) which declared the global spread of polio a “public health emergency of international concern”,

The all-age vaccination against polio at the border crossings serves a practical implementation of another recommendation of the IHR Committee: that Pakistan and Afghanistan should “further intensify cross­border efforts by significantly improving coordination at the national, regional and local levels to substantially increase vaccination coverage of travelers crossing the border and of high risk cross­border populations.”

As part of the newly introduced all-age vaccination, all people above 10 years of age who are given OPV at the border are issued a special card as proof of vaccination. The card remains valid for one year and exempts regular crossers from receiving the vaccination again. Children under 10 years of age will be vaccinated each time they cross the border.

Before all-age vaccination began at Friendship Gate and Torkham, public officials held extensive communication outreach both sides of the border to publicize the expansion of vaccination activities from children under 10 to all ages. Radio messages were played in regional languages, and community engagement sessions sensitized people who regularly travel across the border. Banners and posters were displayed at prominent locations.

Deputy Commissioner for Khyber District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Mr Mehmood Aslam Wazir, inaugurated the launch of All-Age Vaccination by vaccinating elderly persons at the Torkham border crossing. “Vaccination builds immunity and it is necessary for children to be vaccinated in every anti-polio campaign. The polio virus is in circulation and could be a threat to any child. The elders in our community could be carrier of the virus and take along the virus from one place to another, therefore, vaccination of every traveller, of all ages and genders, crossing Pakistan-Afghanistan border will be the key determinant to interrupt polio virus transmission in the region, and the world.”

The introduction of the all-age vaccination at border crossings is the latest example of cross-border cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two countries continue to work closely together to ensure synchronization of strategies, tools and activities on both sides of the border.