Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

UAE would be prepared against potential pandemic, say medics

Doctors say vaccinations are crucial after new report warns a contagious disease could sweep across the globe within 36 hours killing up to 80 million people

A swine flu warning sign at Salalah airport, Oman, in 2009. The swine flu epidemic that year killed tens of thousands of people across the globe. Stephen Lock / The National
A swine flu warning sign at Salalah airport, Oman, in 2009. The swine flu epidemic that year killed tens of thousands of people across the globe. Stephen Lock / The National

Medics in the UAE have urged people to be vaccinated for contagious viruses such as swine flu.

They advised people to have a doctor visit their home rather than go to a clinic if they suspect they have a high temperature.

And suggested cleaning air-conditioning units every six months to disrupt potential for viruses to multiply.

The calls follow an alarming new report that warned a deadly contagious disease could sweep across the globe within 36 hours killing up to 80 million people. The study, by an international monitoring watchdog, stressed that such a pandemic - when an epidemic goes global - had the power to disrupt economies and wreak havoc on poorer communities.

A swine flu pandemic in 2009 killed tens of thousands of people worldwide.

The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board report was convened by the World Health Organisation and World Bank and warned some governments - particularly in less-developed countries - are grossly unprepared.

“People get exposed while travelling and come back with an infection,” said Dr Mustafa Saif, specialist at Aster Hospital in Dubai. “Then it spreads from house to office. This is the pattern which leads to a highly contagious virus spread.”

The UAE, however, is well-placed to deal with such an outbreak. All health-care facilities here are linked electronically to the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation so officials can respond swiftly. But that’s no reason to get complacent. Many people fly in and out of the UAE so individuals should still be prepared.

Dr Saif said taking a yearly influenza vaccine, which can provide up to 80 per cent immunity, was crucial. “Stopping some cases is almost impossible. But at least there are facilities here to control it.”

Medics also urged people with high temperatures to have a doctor visit them at home instead of going to the hospital to limit any outbreak. If the case is serious, patients are taken to a dedicated isolation centre.

“Any people with symptoms of fever are immediately put in isolation,” said Dr Suaad Aljaberi, who founded the Nahdat Al Tamayuz health-care training centre in Abu Dhabi. “Doctors and nurses must act swiftly and these systems are always improving.”

Dr Aljaberi, who runs awareness campaigns about how to tackle such outbreaks, also urged people to ensure their air-conditioning units are cleaned every six months with hot water to kill any viruses. “They are ideal breeding grounds,” she said.

The UAE has been at the forefront of efforts to eradicate contagious diseases such as swine flu and polio. More than 71 million Pakistani children have been vaccinated against polio as part of a UAE campaign there. These efforts will be front and centre at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum in Abu Dhabi this November - where health leaders will discuss efforts to eradicate infectious diseases.

It is high time for urgent and sustained action.

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland

“It is high time for urgent and sustained action,” said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, co-chair of the board. “This must include increased funding at the community, national and international levels to prevent the spread of outbreaks.”

The report tracked 1,483 epidemics across 172 countries between 2011 and 2018. It warned that epidemic-prone diseases such as influenza, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) and Ebola are harbingers of a new era of outbreaks that are increasingly difficult to manage.

The report pointed to the 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic, which killed about 50 million people worldwide and said a repeat could be much worse for the world, wiping out nearly five per cent of the global economy. Climate change, urbanisation and a lack of adequate water and sanitation means an outbreak would spread more rapidly.

Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed at least 20 million people worldwide but medics have warned another outbreak could be much worse. National Museum of Health / AP
Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed at least 20 million people worldwide but medics have warned another outbreak could be much worse. National Museum of Health / AP

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, demonstrated how the lack of trust between communities and authorities can undermine a response.

“We can’t just show up once a health crisis hits," said the board’s co-chairman Elhadj As Sy. "We need to be there before, during and after."

The report also highlighted that poorer countries have the most to fear.

“Ebola, cholera, measles - the most severe disease outbreaks usually occur in the places with the weakest health systems,” said World Health Organisation director general, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus. “We have to ‘fix the roof before the rain comes.’”

The report urged governments to increase funding, ramp up research and strengthen rapid response systems.

Updated: September 19, 2019 09:38 PM

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