New health visa is only a first step

Stricter medical screening for new residents in the UAE is a positive step, but needs to be supported by other measures, such as improved health education and awareness.

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People coming to work in the UAE will soon be required to submit to a medical test in their home country before arriving. The move is part of an overhaul of the medical requirements to obtain a residency visa. Previously, workers had to have only one medical test here in the UAE.

The new law is mainly intended to protect UAE residents against infectious diseases. And in this regard, the policy is a fine step. But the move does raise questions that must be addressed.

In announcing the new policy yesterday, Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the assistant undersecretary for health policies at the Ministry of Health, said, for example, that an astounding one in five workers arriving from Asian countries in 2009 were diagnosed with tuberculosis. The goal is to reduce this.

The new law will also prevent workers from being unnecessarily deported. Many spend all their savings to come work here. To be forced to return to their families empty-handed must be a crushing experience.

But the plan faces some pitfalls.

First, the UAE must find a way to ensure that the tests conducted in foreign countries are carried out by reputable clinics and are accurate. Such tests can be easily forged and business in fake health reports and other documents is booming around the world. Last year, for example, two men were accused of providing labourers fraudulent health certificates required by the Ministry of Health for as much as Dh2,700 (US$735).

Authorities can expect more of the same - especially since they can't monitor what goes on in foreign countries.

The law will also need to be supported by other measures, including more education. Infectious diseases often spread because many people fail to report them. People can also be unaware they are carrying a disease - many people carry TB for years without knowing it, for example. Meningitis, a contagious and deadly spinal infection, is also often only identified once several cases have been reported.

Overworked doctors at public hospitals and clinics also sometimes fail to spot infections.

The law is indeed a good first step, but will need strict vigilance.