The silent killer in the camps

Tuberculosis kills around two million people every year and the epidemic is growing worldwide. Now health experts are warning that construction labour camps throughout the region could be incubating the disease. Conrad Egbert meets two site workers who have contracted TB and asks if the system of deporting workers who suffer from the condition, that is prevalent in some GCC states, is contributing to its spread.

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By  Conrad Egbert Published  May 6, 2006

When 32-year-old Nitin was admitted to Sharjah hospital complaining of chest pains, he thought he was suffering from a common cough that had got out of hand. But one week later he found himself in an isolation ward, wondering when he would see his wife and two children again, and unaware that he would almost certainly be quarantined for two months before being sent home. Nitin is one of hundreds of migrant construction workers across the Gulf who have contracted Tuberculosis — a killer disease that some experts have warned could turn into a micro-epidemic in the industry. The cramped and unhygienic living conditions that characterise many construction labour camps across the region have been blamed for contributing to the spread of the disease. Another reason is the system of deporting workers who contract the disease, prevalent in some countries in the region — which is believed to deter many from seeking treatment. Nitin’s wife and children live in the Indian state of Gujarat. He has never seen his one-and-a-half-year-old son, who was born after he left India to work as a construction worker in Fujairah. He is decimated when he learns that he will be kept in isolation for two months before being sent home. “I would not have sought help from the authorities if I had known this would be the case,” he says. “Now I wish I didn’t come here in the first place. I should have just gone home.” He believes he didn’t have the disease when he left India two years ago, and suspects he contracted it from one of the many workers he was living with. Kumar is not alone. In another case, 40-year-old Gangaram Mogulla from the Indian state of Hyderabad is living on a Dubai street, also suffering from TB. “I came here looking for a job last September and have had a difficult time ever since,” says Gangaram. The World Health Organisation is concerned that there could be an outbreak of TB among construction workers in the Middle East if action is not taken quickly to stem the spread of the disease. And that should involve improving the living conditions of site workers, according to Dr Rajeev Gupta of Abu Dhabi’s Ahlia Hospital. He says: “TB can spread at an alarming rate among construction workers because they stay together in unhygienic conditions, suffer from malnourishment and stress — one of the main reasons for breakdown in immunity.” “TB spreads through droplet infections where a mere cough or sneeze can transfer the bacteria to another person.” The Indian Association in Sharjah doubles up as a repatriation body for TB patients in the UAE. “Most of these people are working under bad conditions in construction jobs,” says a spokesperson. “They work very hard with almost no medical facilities. A lot of these people are illegal [immigrants], and are so scared of being deported, that only when they are in the final stages of the disease, do they come out and tell the authorities. This is a very dangerous situation for everyone.” While some GCC countries such as Kuwait and Qatar do not have a policy of deporting construction workers who contract the illness, others such as Saudi Arabia, automatically send workers home following treatment. And within the UAE, Dubai is the only emirate that does not have a policy of deporting workers with the disease. Dr Juma Bilal Fairuz, director of preventive medicine at the UAE Ministry of Health, says: “The government is working on a new [federal] law that is expected to be out by the end of this year, whereby TB sufferers will no longer be deported. Instead they will get treatment until they are cured.” It may be too late for Nitin, Gangaram and other construction workers in the country who have contracted the disease, but it could be a vital weapon in the battle against the silent killer in the labour camps.

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