Rules relaxed on workers' health checks

Mandatory tests for several diseases are scrapped for all but six categories of labour as health officials look to amend "outdated" laws.

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ABU DHABI // Thousands of people with communicable diseases could be granted work permits after an overhaul of residency medical law. Tests for hepatitis B will only apply to six specified professions, the Ministry of Health said yesterday. It will scrap all mandatory testing for hepatitis C. Testing for HIV/Aids remains in place and any expatriate who tests positive will be deported, the ministry said.

Examinations for both forms of hepatitis, a blood disease, previously applied to every expatriate wanting to live and work in the Emirates. Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the ministry's executive director of health policies, said the changes were made after consulting a broad range of medical officials. "Members from the Dubai Health Authority, Health Authority-Abu Dhabi and the Ministry of Health were involved in the technical committee," he said. "This is the criteria. It is the same as other Gulf countries and will apply everywhere."

Senior officials in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have spoken openly about their desire to amend the residency medical law, particularly those articles governing TB. Dr Ali al Marzouqi, the Dubai Health Authority head of public health and safety, said two months ago that the Federal law governing deportation of TB patients was outdated. The management of some communicable diseases has come under fire in recent years from organisations such as the United Nations, as officials expressed concern about government policies driving illnesses such as TB underground because of the threat of deportation. The six categories of expatriates affected are nannies; housemaids; nursery and kindergarten supervisors; workers in hairdressing saloons, beauty centres and health clubs; anyone working in processing or food-control authorities; and those employed in cafes and restaurants. There was some confusion over the issue of mandatory pregnancy tests for maids, nannies and female drivers. Dr Fikri introduced it as a new provision despite its existence in the original 2008 law. "This will be mandatory now," he said. "We will do the test and then it will be the decision of the sponsor about whether he wants to proceed or not." He declined to say what would happen if a positive result came from an unmarried woman. The amendments to Article 2 of the original 2008 Ministry of Health law makes a hepatitis B vaccination mandatory on arrival in the UAE for the six categories. "The hepatitis B vaccine must be given for the negative cases of the new six categories' arrivals on condition that they should take three doses and provide a certificate proving the dose," the law states. There were 479 cases of hepatitis C diagnosed in Abu Dhabi last year, 77 per cent of which involved expatriates, figures from the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi showed. Of last year's 145 Abu Dhabi syphilis cases, 93 were found in expats. Figures from Dubai for 2008, the most recent available, show 48 of 52 cases of syphilis, 275 of 399 cases of hepatitis C and 802 of 864 hepatitis B cases involved expatriates. Syphilis testing will also apply only to the six professions and positive results will not result in deportation. "Treatment must be provided to all positive cases before obtaining the health certificate for residency," the amended law reads. The rules governing tuberculosis will also be relaxed under the new amendment. Only patients with "new, old or active pulmonary tuberculosis (TB)" will be refused residency, the law says. Previously extra-pulmonary TB and active pneumonia were also deportable. TB tests as a requirement of renewal of visas have been scrapped. Nidal al Kabbah, the senior charge nurse at the infectious disease unit at Rashid Hospital, praised the Ministry of Health for making the changes. His unit received 134 cases of pulmonary TB and a further 15 other varieties of the disease last year, he said. It was not known how many involved expats. "It is great that they are encouraging and supporting every human being's right to live and work," he said. "At the same time, they are protecting the population who are already living and working here." Certain diseases should remain on the list of deportable diseases because of the increased risk they posed to the general public, Mr al Kabbah said. The hepatitis B bacteria, for example, can survive on surfaces outside the body for as long as two months. "It is very important to test certain people for hepatitis B," he said. "Imagine if someone in a kitchen cut themselves without realising it. The virus would spread."