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UAE Steps Up Medical Screening on Expats

Posted on Sep 19, 2011 by Sergio Ulloa ()

The United Arab Emirates' large expatriate workforce will soon be subject to a comprehensive medical screening process before being admitted into the country as part of the government's plan to stop the spread of contagious diseases amongst migrant workers in the Arab state. The new system will also curb the number of workers who slip into the UAE with fake certificates by mandating re-tests once they arrive in the UAE. Starting on October 1 2011, expatriate workers from Indonesia and Sri Lanka will undergo preliminary screening for 16 medical conditions, including tuberculosis, hepatitis B, HIV/Aids and malaria, in their respective countries of origin before they can be approved for a visa to live or work in the UAE. Some specific categories of expatriates will also be further checked for additional non-infectious health issues such as diabetes, cancer and renal failure. Those who test positive for a specified illness at any of the 220 medical centers throughout Asia that are part of the Gulf Approved Medical Centers Association (GAMCA) will be refused entry into the Emirates. Migrant workers who pass the first screening will then be re-tested in the UAE upon their arrival to confirm results. These same tests will also become applicable for residence visa renewal. Visitors entering the UAE on tourist or visit visas however will be exempt from these new health requirements for now. The screening process being implemented in the UAE is the first phase of the Gulf Co-operative Council's (GCC) Expatriate Worker Medical Examination Program, which began in 1995 as a medical fitness system to track the spread of communicable diseases across the Gulf region. This standardized healthcare exam is currently used by Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and includes tests for HIV/Aids, pulmonary tuberculosis, leprosy and syphilis. All GCC visa applicants must also be up-to-date on all their vaccines, including Hepatitis A and B, influenza and the Rubella virus. The UAE is now the final GCC member country to put this program into action, a state that sees almost 1.7 million new expatriate workers head to the state every year. Now, in collaboration with the region's leading physician's advisory group, the GCC technical committee, routine checks will be held internationally to ensure that the highest health reporting standards are maintained and that all newcomers in UAE have genuine accreditation and are free of infectious diseases. Indonesia and Sri Lanka were chosen as the first two countries to undergo the medical screening system after the GCC technical committee conducted a thorough inspection of their healthcare facilities. These two countries will serve as very useful pilot subjects, as there are currently an estimated 250,000 Sri Lankan and 100,000 Indonesian expatriates working in the UAE. After a three-to-six month evaluation period, the program will be extended towards migrant labor from at least eight other Asian and African countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal, Egypt, Sudan and the Philippines. Health officials have long expressed concern about the spread of infectious disease among migrant workers in the Gulf, and in particular tuberculosis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that new strains of tuberculosis and other drug resistance diseases have increased globally over the past few years, with new cases occurring most prominently in South Asia, a region that supplies the Gulf with many of its workers. According to the UAE Ministry of Health's 2009 data, over 21 percent of all Asian expatriates screened for visa renewal tested positive for TB while in the country. The UAE's Ministry of Health explained in a statement that the new testing regime was necessary to both prevent the spread of disease and keep adequate records of migrant labor in the Emirates. "The new procedures will positively affect public health and eliminate diseases among newcomers to the UAE who are either coming for work or residence½The most important reason for the implementation of the program in the country of origin is to discover diseases in a suitable time. This achieves the highest protection grades." The UAE's previous immigration rules called for similar medical checks for expatriates before securing a visa. However, immigrants were allowed to enter the country and wait for up to a month before the screening process and this could've contributed to the spread of communicable diseases in the UAE before the diagnosis was made. According to the Ministry of Health, instituting a thorough double check process by both the home country and UAE will work to curtail fraud and will lessen the stress and expenses on the UAE healthcare system, which has to treat all patients with communicable diseases at great cost before deporting them. Many of these sickly immigrants would not have been able to fulfill their job commitments in their present condition anyway. The number of people waiting to get tested is also expected to drop as expatriate workers will be deterred from trying to get into the country with faked test results. As part of the GCC's regional expatriate testing initiative, all screening centers, embassies and consulates are connected through a computer system to ensure transparency and improve security. Health centers found issuing fraudulent health certificates and medical reports will have their license revoked and be fined thousands of dollars. "Double-testing will positively affect public health and eliminate diseases brought in," said Salem Darmaki, Acting Undersecretary at the Ministry of Health, at a press conference in Dubai on Wednesday, concluding that "We hope these procedures have a positive impact on public health in society to eliminate diseases among newcomers to the UAE, and reduce the psychological and financial burden in case they fail to obtain a residency visa."
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