Health officials are no longer testing for H1N1 virus, which a new journal report says was responsible for 26 deaths in 2009-2010.
H1N1 has become 'just another flu bug'
Hospitals are no longer carrying out tests for H1N1, even though the flu strain is still turning up in the Emirates. Medical experts say it is now considered no more dangerous than regular strains of seasonal influenza.
H1N1 has now become the dominant strain of seasonal flu in the Middle East, accounting for 30 to 70 per cent of flu-like infections in the region, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
"We are not testing everyone for H1N1," said Dr Ali Al Marzouqi, the head of public health and safety at the Dubai Health Authority. "We are giving them the same medication as everyone else.
"Sometimes we are just advising them to take a rest and a few days off work."
According to a paper published in this month's edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, 26 people died and there were 934 confirmed infections in the UAE during the height of the H1N1 crisis in 2009-2010.
The paper, published by Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) officials, reported that there was a sharp decline in the number of H1N1 cases from the beginning of last year.
The decline can be attributed to a decision to abandon a rigorous testing regime, said the report's co-author, Dr Jamal al Mutawa, the section head of communicable diseases at HAAD.
"At the start we felt we should test every case," he said. "That's why the numbers accumulated. But we found that it was not practical, so by the end we stopped doing that."
Those who developed complications from H1N1 were most likely to have had underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, he added.
Pregnant women in particular were found to be vulnerable, with six pregnant women among those who died.
The figure of 934 confirmed infections might be only a fraction of the total number of infections across the country, said Dr Rayhan Hashmey, the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain.
"It could be that 90 per cent of the people who had H1N1 weren't diagnosed," he said. "The number of infections could have been as high as 90,000 people."
He said that H1N1 was a common type of flu in his hospital. Only in severe cases do staff test for the disease, he said.
The change comes six months after the WHO formally declared an end to the H1N1 pandemic.
Kristen Kelleher, a spokeswoman for the organisation, said that attitudes toward the virus in the Emirates reflected global sentiment.
"In general, H1N1 is acting as a seasonal influenza now," she said.
Shortly after declaring an end to the pandemic, WHO issued a notice advising governments to adopt close surveillance of emerging viruses. While neighbouring countries such as Oman and Kuwait have national referral laboratories capable of doing this sort of work, the UAE has no such institution. HAAD has since entered discussions about setting up a limited surveillance programme, he said. "We would prefer that there [be] a public health referral laboratory," he said. "We hope that in the future we can get one."
That was a view shared by Dr Mansour al Zarouni, the chairman of infection control at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah.
"It's necessary for the prevention of any outbreak of other infectious diseases," he said. "Not only new forms of influenza, but diseases which are more dangerous, like tuberculosis.
"Without this thing we are working blind. We cannot wait and see what other countries will do."