Expatriates who pass the homeland screening will be re-tested on arrival. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai An alarming rise in tuberculosis and HIV positive cases has prompted authorities to subject newcomers to mandatory medical tests in their home countries from October 1.

Starting Saturday, expatriate workers will have to undergo a screening for three key communicable diseases - TB, HIV/Aids and hepatitis B at approved centres in their homeland when they apply for a visa to live or work in the UAE. Those who test positive for a specified illness won't be allowed into the country.

To be implemented under Federal Law No 27 of 1981, the new rule is part of a GCC-wide pilot project and will initially apply to expatriates from Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Expatriates from nine other countries, including India, Pakistan, Philippines, Egypt and Syria, will come under its ambit in phases.

Expat workers who pass the first screening abroad will be re-tested upon arrival to confirm the results. While the tests will apply for renewal of residence visas, visitors on tourist or visit visas will be exempt for now.

"It is time for us to make sure that the community is safe from imported communicable diseases," said Dr Aizeldin Abdul Rahman Elgak Ebrahim, Acting Director of Public Health and Safety under the Health Policy and Strategy Sector in Dubai which is implementing the project along with the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi (HAAD) and the Ministry of Health (MoH).

HEALTH SECURITY

Ebrahim said it is imperative to nip highly communicable diseases in the bud with the ultimate objective of achieving health security.

According to official figures, a total of 149 cases of tuberculosis was detected among newcomers between January and August 2011, up from 116 in the whole of 2010 and 91 in 2009. Similarly, 204 HIV positive cases were detected this year as against 183 in 2010 and 113 in 2009. The figures for viral hepatitis (HBV), however, fell to 524 till August this year, down from 2,173 in 2010 and 3,257 in 2009.

DHA's cumulative data with regard to residents puts the number of tuberculosis cases at 133 in the first quarter of this year, as against 640 in the whole of 2010 and also in 2009, while HIV positive cases stand at 59 in the first quarter of 2011 as against 233 in 2010 and 197 in 2009. There were 221 HBV cases in 2011 first quarter, as against 953 in 2010 and 908 in 2009.

Commenting on the rising number of TB cases among first-time residents, an MoH statement said, "Results of epidemiological studies conducted by HAAD proved that this increase is consistent with the findings of the World Health Organisation which indicate increasing numbers of TB cases and drug resistance … especially in Asia."

Not surprisingly, mostly Asian countries - Sri Lanka and Indonesia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines in Southeast Asia - have been selected for the homeland medical tests. The tests will also apply to expats from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in Africa, besides Syria from the Middle East.

The health screening will have to be done in one of 220 Gulf Approved Medical Centres Association (GAMCA) centres in these countries which will issue the necessary health certificates. "There are 14 centres in Indonesia and 15 in Sri Lanka," said Dr Ebrahim.

Procedure

A copy of the certificate will have to be attached to the passport copy while applying for a residence or work visa. Upon arrival in the UAE, the expats will have to get themselves re-examined at the medical fitness centres and produce the original health certificate from the home country along with a copy of passport and visa.

The Health Ministry said the re-examination is aimed at ascertaining that the incubation period of a disease (not detected in the home country) has ended.

It would confirm the results of the earlier screening and rule out the possibility of these being faked.

The countries in question have welcomed the new policy.

"In our position, we welcome the new policy as it is for the betterment of both workers and employers," the Indonesian Embassy told XPRESS.

Hannan Hadi, Third Secretary (Protocol & Consular Affairs), said the existing procedure sometimes resulted in a lot of heartache and hassles. "There are approximately 100,000 Indonesians in the UAE, a majority of whom are unskilled workers. Every month, three to five workers return home disappointed as they fail medical tests. Employers are also affected as they lose money in bringing them here."

Abdul Raheem, Consul General of the Sri Lankan Consulate in Dubai, said, "We welcome the move. If the tests are a requirement of the UAE government to check the spread of communicable diseases, we have to comply with that." The Consul General added, "There are around 250,000 Sri Lankans in the UAE, 30-40 per cent of whom are domestic workers."

According to Dr Ebrahim, timely detection at medical fitness centres has been largely responsible for keeping communicable diseases at bay in the UAE. "These diseases are not a burden. But before detection there is always the danger of an infected person spreading the disease. This is where prior tests in the home country will help."

Dr Ebrahim added that DHA's new childhood immunisation programme has achieved a penetration of over 95 per cent. "Diseases like mumps and measles are well under control but chicken pox remains a challenge," he said (see box).

By January 2012, more vaccine qualified clinics (VQCs) in Dubai will be identified under a new unified policy to streamline the standard of vaccine providers on an international level.

Dr Ebrahim said the current imbalance between government and private sectors in the area of immunisation needs to be corrected. "DHA accounts for 90 per cent of the immunisation services while the private sector pitches in with just 10 per cent. This is disproportionate especially since the private sector accounts for 60 per cent of all health care."

The lowdown

  • WHAT: Health screening for tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B in home countries
  • WHO: Workers from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Syria applying for residence visas and work permits
  • WHEN: From October 1 for those from Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Rest to be announced later.
  • WHERE: Gulf Approved Medical Centres Association centres in the home countries
  • HOW: Screening to be done when applying for visa. Copy of health certificate to be sent to the sponsor. Original to be produced upon arrival and also while undergoing re-examination at medical fitness centres.

Did you know?

DHA accounts for 90 per cent of the immunisation services in Dubai. In stark contrast, the private sector contributes just 10 per cent though it accounts for 60 per cent of all health care services.

Chicken Pox Challenge

The control of chicken pox is proving to be a big challenge within Dubai, a top health official said.

Dr Aizeldin Abdel Rahman Elgak Ebrahim, Acting Director of Public Health and Safety, said, "Chicken pox is the most commonly occurring communicable disease within Dubai. It spreads easily and quickly, especially among schoolchildren."

Pointing out that there were 3,219 cases of chicken pox in 2010, he said, "Our target is to reduce the number of cases by 20 per cent at the end of 2012 and 50 per cent by 2013."

He regretted that the vaccine against chicken pox (Varecilla virus) was not fully utilised. Although chicken pox is a self-limiting viral infection, it can be quite a setback with children missing school for weeks.

"I urge residents to maintain personal hygiene and keep suspected cases under respiratory isolation," he added.