Times of Oman
Nov 28, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 03:37 PM GMT
Foreign doctors, nurses in Saudi Arabia could take MERS global
May 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM

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.

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.


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

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