So there we were in the Istanbul airport, having finished a delicious Burger King dinner (OK, so the sandwich choices were really limited, don't hate), ready to proceed to the gate for our departure to Dushanbe. I had been talking about Starbucks a lot, fully aware that I would not encounter much iced coffee while in Tajikistan, so I went to purchase a final grande iced latte while other group members went variously to smoke, powder their noses, or proceed to the gate.
In the Istanbul airport, you pass through one security checkpoint and passport control to get into the international departures area, and we had already gone through all that, but then you have to go through another individual gate checkpoint. I hurried to this final line, then stood there waiting, breathlessly enjoying my iced coffee and chatting amicably with some random United Statesian guys I found behind me who were off to visit their expat buddy in Tajikistan.
As I got to the conveyor belt, my stream of happy chatter was suddenly interrupted by a tall man in a very official-looking orange vest who declared to each passenger, "We have had some polio problem in Tajikistan. You may have an oral vaccine before you get on the plane. Now you will declare whether you want the vaccine, yes or no."
I'm sorry - what? Polio? Polio? The man's English was pretty good, but didn't we long since eradicate that shit? The answer, for your information, is no. It remains endemic in four countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. That last one there is apparently to blame for spreading a little virus over the border into southern Tajikistan (well, and the obvious problem of poverty and many, many children not having vaccinations, apparently). People from a lot of nations were going to be on this flight. The vaccine was undoubtedly needed by few to none of us.
But these sorts of rational facts were not at all what was going through my head at this gate checkpoint, while the man in the orange vest (Tajik? Turkish? World Health? U.N.?) looked me in the eye waiting for my answer. Instead what was going through me head was, still, "Polio?!"
The next thing that went through my head was, quite simply, "I don't know!" Did I need a vaccine? When did I have a polio vaccine? Are they good for life? Are you sure we haven't eradicated this? Growing up in the U.S., one thinks very little about polio, unless one is admiring FDR's triumphant life. Wait, was it eradicated during out parents' generation? Did I even have a polio vaccine? OK, now I was starting to get paranoid.
The United Statesians behind me were no help. One was a military brat who grew up everywhere and has been vaccinated for everything many times over. In front of me were a few African businessmen (I later learned they were a few of the many passengers traveling to Dushanbe as delegates to some Islamic nations conference) who were highly amused by me as I peppered Orange Vest Official with questions: "Well, do I need it? Did I get sufficiently vaccinated in the U.S. as a child? How long does it last? What if I say no, can I change mind?"
"You will now declare to me 'yes' or 'no,'" he repeated.
Oh my. My group leader and U.S. cohorts had long since passed through to the gate seating area, while I was off getting this beloved iced coffee drink. Had they said they'd take the vaccine? I finally told the man yes, then barely noticed my bag going along the conveyor belt as I rushed through found them all in gate area seats.
"Um, I'm sorry, polio?! What's happening?" I said. I was met with blank looks. "Polio...vaccine...the orange vest man..." Nope, nothing. Obviously, the man had not talked to those who reached the gate early and had only just started to ask individual passengers. So now, my fellow Habitatters also thought I was crazy, along with Orange Vest Official and the random Africans. A funny thing happens once the paranoid thoughts start flying (and when I have just slammed a grande espresso drink in, like, ten minutes): I need a very specific, very strong reassurance to come back down. I got none of that. Instead I got a lot of, "Oh, you're probably fine."
Probably fine? This is polio we're talking about! Sure, I had been cavalier about the CDC-recommended typhoid vaccine (i.e., I didn't get it), but polio? The very word is scary. Earlier that day I had said something about "NPR" and one of the peeps thought I had said "FDR." Was that a sign?
Finally, I did what I had been resisting doing since leaving the U.S. I turned on my cell phone and called my mother, at $2.80 per minute, to demand information about my polio vaccines(s). Mind you, I wanted to keep the phone call to a few dollars, so I basically said, "I'm going to make this very brief and then hang up but have I been vaccinated for polio? Are you sure? When? You're sure it was polio, right? Does it last forever? OK, gotta get on a plane to Tajikistan. Bye!" Mom must have loved that one. Would it take her mind off the fact that Tajikistan borders Afghanistan?
Finally, my group members' indifference convinced me I didn't need it, so I began to worry that as we boarded, they wouldn't let me change my mind and would force it upon me anyway. That wasn't a problem, but then - then! - after we passed through Orange Vested Vaccine Distributing Women who was kicking it in front of the jetway with gloved hands and a little cooler full of oral vaccine, I see that another group member, the feisty and fabulous Jane, took the vaccine! Aargh! I asked her if she hadn't already had one? "Sure," she replied, "I re-upped!" This unleashed a new round of paranoia, although I drew further reassurance from a Persian(?) woman who had become involved with my dilemma at our seats. She was on the whole more interested in consoling me than my teammates were, I have to say.
On the plane, I totally had to take myself down a notch. I rather enjoyed the flight, a wide-bodied Turkish Airlines jet with meal, snack, individual screens, movie choices, games, free socks and blindfold, and so on. We arrived in Dushanbe around 2:30 a.m., and as we waited to pass through immigration, we chatted it up with a British woman who works for the WHO and was in Dushanbe for a conference! Oh, she would have all the answers! Should I have got the vaccine? Sure, she said. Crap!
She also went on to tell us a few more things about it. She had heard about the polio outbreak before leaving England, from a colleague, so she got her "polio jab" as she put it before leaving home. It's basically spread through contaminated water, the outbreak in Dushanbe had mainly affected children (240 of them at that time; I've since seen numbers above 500), and we would probably be fine because we were off to a rural village in the other direction, safely away from the outbreak in the city.
Yikes. You could not get me out of Dushanbe fast enough after all that! (By the time we returned after the build, I was much more appreciative of Dushanbe, and I love it, polio notwithstanding). It was a bizarre experience made all the more unsettling for myself by my penchant for dramatic flailing in the face of decision-making. My mother, kindly, e-mailed me with a list of my polio vaccination and booster dates, which she looked up after my hurried phone call. In the future, like when I eventually finally go to India someday, maybe I'll get an adult booster.
On the return flight to Istanbul, while we stood waiting to de-plane, a flight attendant made an announcement in Turkish: "something-something-Turkish-something-something-polio vaccine-something-something." I caught a fellow team member's eye and just laughed. Good ol' polio vaccine at the gate. This time I walked past the woman and calmly said, "No thanks."