Pakistan uses famous truck art to ramp up anti-polio efforts

Pakistan is using its famous truck art to ramp up an ongoing countrywide anti-polio campaign aimed at achieving a long-desired polio-free status for the South Asian nuclear nation.

Being one of the best cultural exports in recent years, the truck art has hit the galleries from North America to Europe, prompting stores to sell miniatures.

Elaborate and flamboyant designs, blended with cultural, sports, and political themes, have long been an essential part of goods transport, mainly trucks, which run from the southern port city of Karachi to the faraway northwestern Afghanistan border, and to the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region near China's frontiers.

Hidayatullah Mehsud, a truck owner from South Waziristan tribal district – once a hotbed of militancy, has recently repainted the rear side of his vehicle with an anti-polio theme. And he has a reason for it.

"Most of the polio cases are reported in our region, where a large number of parents still resist (anti-polio) vaccination to their children," Mehsud said.

Waziristan is considered the poliovirus epicenter, with 16 cases reported among children last year out of a total of 20 in Pakistan, one of two countries, the other being Afghanistan, where the crippling disease still exists.

Despite consistent efforts by the government and non-governmental organizations, many parents, particularly in areas dominated by the ethnic Pashtun population, refuse to have their children vaccinated on faux religious grounds, causing the South Asian nation to continuously miss the mark of a polio-free country.

"The previous painting (on his truck) was about the mountains and the beauty of my hometown. Now I realize that the actual beauty should be a polio-free Waziristan," he went on to say.

"I am proud to be a part of the efforts aimed at eradicating polio from the country," Mehsud, a father of four, said.

Simple way to create awareness

Anti-polio messages in local languages, including Pashto, have been painted on trucks traveling on different routes in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the hub of virus transmission, and Afghanistan, to educate the population.

A majority of the truck drivers and owners in Pakistan belong to the ethnic Pashtun community.

"We are registering more trucks to carry this message," said Idrees Hayat Baloch, an executive committee member of the Karachi Goods Carriers Association, which is coordinating the campaign.

He told that the trucks are carrying the anti-polio message "from mountains to deserts," focusing people in remote areas where it is desperately needed.

"Truck owners and drivers' response is very encouraging. They are happy to have their trucks painted with the anti-polio theme rather than pictures of singers, actresses, or political leaders," Baloch said.

"This is a simple but very effective method of delivering a message to every nook and corner of the country," he added.

No polio cases this year

The primary objective of using truck art, according to Zulfiqar Babakhel, a spokesperson for the National Emergency Operations Center for Polio Eradication, is to spread anti-polio and pro-vaccination awareness across the country, especially in remote areas by using different themes.

"These trucks travel to every nook and corner of the country, especially in areas where some people are still skeptical about the vaccine,” he told Anadolu.

Pakistan remains under a polio-linked travel restriction imposed by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The UN health agency made it mandatory in 2014 for all those traveling from Pakistan to carry a polio vaccination certificate. The ban has been extended every six months.

So far this year, the country has not reported even a single case, Babakhel said, adding that the last case was reported last September.

However, according to the WHO standards, a country needs to be without a single case for three consecutive years to be declared polio-free.

Last year, the country reported 20 polio cases, including 16 in North Waziristan alone, compared to one in 2021, 84 in 2020, and 179 in 2019.

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