Fighting Polio Along a Porous Border
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Essayist Tim Brookes recently visited the Pakistan/Afghanistan border with a team from the World Health Organization and an armed escort to observe the continuing battle to eradicate polio.
Mr. TIM BROOKES (Writer, Champlain College, Vermont): This border is nothing like borders Americans are used to, especially after 9/11. No barriers, no razor wire, no officials scowling at documents, just a cluster of stalls selling everything that can be eaten, stolen or smuggled. A teenage boy sells camouflaged flack jackets. The traffic is like a multi-colored mechanical Chinese carnival dragon that parades smokily toward Afghanistan passing ten-year-old boys trudging back uphill with bulky green plastic trash bags over their shoulders. These are professional smugglers.
Pakistani truckers avoid paying duty by driving containers of imported goods into Afghanistan, dumping the container and paying small boys to carry the goods back into Pakistan, which is why one of the WHO polio vaccination team once saw an entire fleet of bicycles being ridden at hair-raising speed by young boys down the Pakistani side of the Khyber Pass.
Arms, heroin, pretty much everything crosses this border, including polio virus, which is why half a dozen young men with blue coolers to keep the vaccine from spoiling are standing beside the road with the slightly dejected air of family planning volunteers handing out condoms at a Grateful Dead show. In theory, they're vaccinating every child under five who cross the border, but in fact they don't seem to be making much effort to stop and examine the gaudy overcrowded buses and trucks.
It's hard to remain vigilant, the WHO team leader says that evening. There's nothing to motivate them. Even the customs and the police, people can just walk through. Some on the polio team suggest the virus may be flourishing in the lawless borderlands of Afghanistan and regularly re-infecting Pakistan. Others think it may be the other way around or both. If everything else can cross the border so easily, what hope do the polio teams have of stopping something as small and easily smuggled as a virus, which can survive for months hiding in someone's gut like a bag of heroin?
Just south of here, the Pakistani Army is fighting the Taliban. Just north, the U.S. launches an air strike that reportedly kills a senior Al-Qaida officer. At this, the most porous of borders, the vaccinators wilt in the midday heat. We get back in our air-conditioned van, wave and wish them luck.
HANSEN: Tim Brookes is the director of the writing program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.