By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent
It seems like only yesterday that the world, including the Middle East, was gearing up for an the Avian pandemic flu. The antiviral medications were stockpiled and the public was warned. However, the highly anticipated pandemic never came to fruition, until now.
Seemingly overnight, the so-called Swine Flu, which is a deadly cocktail of the avian, human and pig flu, has griped the world in terror and pushed Bird Flu out of the limelight.
What began as a disease affecting people in Mexico City has reached out across the globe with tourists to the popular travel destination exporting the illness to their own homelands.
As of this writing, the only deaths from Swine Flu have been in Mexico, where more than 159 people have died, and most recently the US State of Texas where a 23-month-old toddler succumbed to the disease. However, the death toll is expected to rise and the illness to spread, as countries like New Zealand, Scotland, Spain and Germany are reporting cases of human infections.
As far as the Middle East is concerned, the only country to have known cases of Swine Flu is Israel, where two men and a small child have been diagnosed with it and subsequently quarantined. Other countries including Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have given the all clear to the World Health Organization (WHO) that zero cases of the Swine Flu have been detected. However, only time will tell if the Gulf region will be affected by the deadly contagion.
For the most part, Gulf residents are watching the disease unfold across their television screens, but most donâ€™t expect it to reach their borders. â€œWe donâ€™t have pig farms here and Islam forbids eating pork,â€ rationalizes Amin Mohammad who is a Pakistani day laborer in Kuwait, â€œI donâ€™t think we have much to worry about.â€ However, this type of mentality, which is abounding in local Arab newspapers and on Arab blogs, should give cause for alarm.
The Swine Flu is easily transmitted from human to human, so all it takes is for one infected person to pass it on to many. And while the Middle East is not a popular venue for raising pigs, there are countless pig farms in Egypt, which is too close for comfort as it shares a border with several Gulf countries.
The Middle East reaction to the Swine Flu has been watered down, to say the least, with an emergency meeting of Arab nations set almost 2 weeks away on May 10.
Arab leaders will meet to discuss how best to combat the illness should it force its way into Gulf territory. A few countries in the Middle East are mounting their own initiatives to ensure public safety. In Kuwait, for example, the government has stockpiles of Tamiflu and Relenza, which the government procured back when the Bird Flu was the primary threat.
The borders surrounding the State of Kuwait have also been secured, and checkpoints established to ensure the Swine Flu does not spillover from another Gulf State. However, the airport remains restriction-free, without even basic thermal testing to check if passengers arriving have a fever. Although the Ministry of Health has released a statement saying that an effective plan for quarantine has been developed in case someone is found to have the Swine Flu in Kuwait.
Contrastingly, the UAE has done little-to-nothing to prepare for an outbreak of the Swine Flu. Travel restrictions have not been placed on people arriving or departing the country. The only factor that the government is relying on is a stockpile of more than 3 million doses of Tamiflu. However, the government is currently discussing setting up a monitoring system to detect people infected with the Swine Flu.
Perhaps the country most capable of handling a Swine Flu outbreak is Egypt. According to the WHO, Egypt was so successful in combating the Bird Flu (which has claimed 26 lives over the past few years) within in its own borders that it can utilize the same model to combat the Swine Flu. Egyptian doctors have already been trained to recognize the symptoms of the Bird Flu, which is very similar to the Swine Flu. In addition, the Egyptian government has ordered the immediate culling of the countryâ€™s estimated 250,000 population of pigs.
As the disease spreads from border to border and gets closer and closer to the Gulf, residents can do little more than stand by and watch to see if the disease will take hold and, if so, what anyone can do about it.