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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs