News / Health

    Foreign Doctors, Nurses in Saudi Arabia Could Take MERS Global

    Muslim pilgrims wears surgical masks to help prevent infection from a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May, 13, 2014.
    Muslim pilgrims wears surgical masks to help prevent infection from a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May, 13, 2014.
    Reuters
    The biggest risk that Middle East Respiratory Syndrome will become a global epidemic, ironically, may lie with globe-trotting healthcare workers.
     
    From Houston to Manila, doctors and nurses are recruited for lucrative postings in Saudi Arabia, where MERS was first identified in 2012. Because the kingdom has stepped up hiring of foreign healthcare professionals in the last few years, disease experts said, there is a good chance the MERS virus will hitch a ride on workers as they return home.
     
    “This is how MERS might spread around the world,” said infectious disease expert Dr Amesh Adalja of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
     
    It can take five to 14 days for someone infected with MERS to show symptoms, more than enough time for a contagious person to fly to the other side of the world without being detectable.
     
    Healthcare workers “are at extremely high risk of contracting MERS compared to the general public,” Adalja said.
     
    The threat has attracted new attention with the confirmation of the first two MERS cases in the United States. Both are healthcare workers who fell ill shortly after leaving their work in Saudi hospitals and boarding planes bound west.
     
    About one-third of the MERS cases treated in hospitals in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah were healthcare workers, according to the World Health Organization.

     
    Countries reporting new MERS cases, 2014, May 13 updateCountries reporting new MERS cases, 2014, May 13 update
    x
    Countries reporting new MERS cases, 2014, May 13 update
    Countries reporting new MERS cases, 2014, May 13 update

    Despite the risk, few of the healthcare workers now in, or planning to go to, Saudi Arabia are having second thoughts about working there, according to nurses, doctors and recruiters interviewed by Reuters.
     
    Michelle Tatro, 28, leaves next week for the kingdom, where she will work as an open-heart-surgery nurse. Tatro, who typically does 13-week stints at hospitals around the United States, said her family had sent her articles about MERS, but she wasn't worried.
     
    “I was so glad to get this job,” she told Reuters. “Travel is my number one passion.”
     
    So far, international health authorities have not publicly expressed concern about the flow of expatriate medical workers to and from Saudi Arabia.
     
    “There is not much public health authorities or border agents can do,” said infectious disease expert Dr Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. “Sure, they can ask people, 'did you work in a healthcare facility in Saudi Arabia,' but if the answer is yes, then what?”
     
    Healthcare workers are best placed to understand the MERS risk, Osterholm said, and “there should be a heightened awareness among them of possible MERS symptoms.”
     
    Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to questions about whether they were considering monitoring healthcare workers returning to the United States.
     
    Soaring demand 


    In the last few years, the number of expatriates working in Saudi Arabia has soared, said Suleiman Arabie, managing director of Houston, Texas-based recruiting firm SA International, with thousands now working in the kingdom.
     
    About 15 percent of physicians working in the kingdom are American or European, and some 40 percent of nurses are Filipino or Malaysian, according to estimates by recruiters and people who have worked in hospitals there.
     
    The majority of U.S.-trained medical staff are on one- or two-year contracts, which results in significant churn as workers rotate in and out of Saudi medical facilities.
     
    The Saudi government is building hundreds of hospitals and  offering private companies interest-free loans to help build new facilities. Its healthcare spending jumped to $27 billion last year from $8 billion in 2008. Building the hospitals is one challenge, staffing them with qualified personnel is another.
     
    Arabie's firm is trying to fill positions at two dozen medical facilities in Saudi Arabia for pulmonologists, a director of nursing, a chief of physiotherapy and scores more.
     
    Doctors in lucrative, in-demand specialties such as cardiology and oncology can make $1 million for a two-year contract, recruiters said.
     
    Nurses' pay depends on their home country, with those from the United States and Canada earning around $60,000 a year while those from the Philippines get about $12,000, recruiters said. That typically comes with free transportation home, housing, and 10 weeks of paid vacation each year. For Americans, any income under about $100,000 earned abroad is tax-free, adding to the appeal of a Saudi posting.
     
    One Filipina nurse, who spoke anonymously so as not to hurt her job prospects, told Reuters that she was “willing to go to Saudi Arabia because I don't get enough pay here.” In a private hospital in Manila, she made 800 pesos (about $18) a day.
     
    “I know the risks abroad but I'd rather take it than stay here,” she said. “I am not worried about MERS virus. I know how to take care of myself and I have the proper training.”
     
    None of Arabie's potential candidates “have expressed any concern” about MERS. Only one of the hundreds of professionals placed by Toronto-based medical staffing firm Helen Ziegler & Associates Inc. decided to return to the United States because of MERS, it said, and one decided not to accept a job in Jeddah she had been hired for.
     
    Recruitment agencies in Manila have also continued to send nurses to the kingdom since the MERS outbreak, said Hans Leo Cacdac, the head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. The government advises that returning workers be screened for MERS, Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said this week.
     
    Expat healthcare workers now working in Saudi Arabia feel confident local authorities are taking the necessary steps to combat the spread of MERS in hospitals.
     
    “Just today they came and put up giant posters in our hospital on MERS,” said Dr Taher Kagalwala, a pediatrician originally from Mumbai who works at Al-Moweh General Hospital in a town about 120 miles from Tai'f city in western Saudi Arabia
     
    “I have not heard of or seen any healthcare workers looking to leave their jobs or return to their countries because of the MERS panic. If it was happening, there would have been gossip very soon.”

    You May Like

    US, Allies Discuss Next Steps in Islamic State Fight

    Meeting comes a day after US Navy SEAL was killed while fighting Islamic State forces in northern Iraq

    In China, Traditional Banks Fight Challenge From Internet Firms

    Internet companies lent more than $150 billion to customers in 2015, which is an extremely small amount compared to the much larger lending by commercial banks last year

    Trump Faces Tough Presidential Odds Against Clinton

    According to analysts, early indications are that Republican front-runner faces daunting contest against likely Democratic candidate, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limitedi
    X
    Katie Arnold
    May 04, 2016 12:31 PM
    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora