Middle East holds its breath

After overcoming problems closer to home, the region tries to fight off the SARS virus

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By  John Irish Published  May 14, 2003

|~||~||~|Airline passengers to and from the Middle East are being urged not to panic, after several Arab countries reported suspected cases of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which as of April 22 had turned up in 25 countries worldwide. Officials in Jordan and Saudi Arabia confirmed on April 18 and 19 that they were investigating instances where SARS may have arrived in the countries.

In Saudi Arabia, a Philippine national, who arrived on a Singapore Airlines flight into Jeddah was taken for tests and put into isolation for 10 days, the recommended incubation period. “Initial medical tests for SARS have been negative. But the man will be kept under observation for further check ups,” Khaled Al Merghalani, public relation’s chief for the Saudi Ministry of Health told AFP.

In the Hashemite Kingdom, Health Minister Waleed Al Maa’ni confirmed that a doctor in a private hospital had informed the ministry about a suspected case of SARS. The patient, as well as several people he had been in contact with, was placed into quarantine. There have also been unconfirmed reports of suspected SARS cases in Lebanon.

The latest developments come just two weeks after an American expatriate returning to Kuwait was confirmed as having contracted the virus. Health officials in the UAE were quick to allay fears that the disease had spread to its shores. Dr Said Arnouts, WHO spokesmen for the UAE, confirmed on April 10 that there were suspected cases of atypical pneumonia in the area. However, on April 16, the UAE’s Minister of Health, Hamad Abdul Rahman Al Madfa, acknowledging that 5 people had been confined, stressed that they were given the all clear.

Nevertheless, despite the UAE Health Ministry declaring that the country was SARS free, health officials in the country have been quick to adopt WHO travel advice to postpone all non-essential travel to Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Hanoi. The ministry has also alerted all hospitals and doctors about the SARS virus.

That move was echoed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. In Bahrain, health ministry spokeswoman Mariam Al Jalahma confirmed on April 22 that the Kingdom had decided to ban direct arrivals from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. “People who have been in those countries must wait at least 10 days in a third country before they can enter Bahrain. We are not taking any chances,” she said.
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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced on April 10 that passenger numbers worldwide had dropped 17.4% over the same period last year and travel industry experts confirmed that Far East destinations were suffering. “Our bookings to the Far East have been reduced to a great extent. Usually, we have lots of people travelling there. Unfortunately, because of SARS, the Far East traffic has come down considerably,” said Eric Dass, operations manager at Al Tayer Travel Agency.

Despite the disease spreading around the globe, predominantly through air travel, the region’s airlines initially took a guarded approach. Emirates has not revised its schedules to the Far East, opting for a series of precautionary measures based on liasing with WHO officials, other regional airlines and the UAE’s Health Ministry. “We have briefed all our cabin crews on how to look out for patients with SARS symptoms, what to do if they suspect a patient. We’ve equipped the flights with extra facemasks, surgical gloves and biohazard waste disposal bags; these are all precautions,” said a spokesperson for Emirates.

In addition, the spokesperson claimed that while the disease was a cause for concern, it was not a cause for panic. “We feel the fear is spreading a lot faster than the disease,” said the official.

For passengers travelling to and from Hong Kong, Emirates’ sole destination to the affected region, the airline will reroute and cancel tickets free of charge should passengers wish to alter their travel arrangements.

Gulf Air, which operates services to both Hong Kong and Singapore, did, however, suspend flights to Hong Kong for one month on April 24, following the Bahraini government’s decision to introduce restrictions on travellers from certain Far East countries.

“I wouldn’t say it has had a dramatic impact on our loads, we have had to manage the situation and watch it carefully, it has impacted to a small degree. Until quite recently the WHO had said that people should continue with their travel plans, and only recently they imposed that sort of advice to stop travelling to Hong Kong,” said Ann Tullis, consultant for Gulf Air.
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However, airlines based in the Far East are being forced to take a different approach. Hong Kong, which has the largest number of SARS cases, has been worse hit. Cathay Pacific (CX), the island’s flagship carrier reduced its operations by 10% on March 31.

“Safety is always our top priority. We have been vigilant since the outbreak of SARS and have initiated a host of precautionary health measures in response to protecting the travelling public as well as our staff. CX is in full co-operation with the health authorities to ensure ultimate safety thorough investigations and follow-up procedures on a daily basis,” said Navin Chellaram, Cathay Pacific’s UAE manager.

While Gulf Air became the first airline to axe services to and from the Middle East, other airlines could follow suit should passenger demand fall.

“We are looking at the various situations and if they warrant any drastic action such as cancellation of flights and so on, we will definitely have to do that. But only if there are proven cases and the situation gets out of hand,” said Dato Tuan Ibrahim, regional general manager, Middle East, Malaysian Airlines. “Currently, frequency [between Dubai and Singapore] has not been affected… but for Singapore Airlines capacity is always weighed against demand,” said Sam Abraham, district sales manager, UAE, Singapore Airlines.

“Therefore, if we have a daily frequency now it’s because the current level of demand justifies it. However, if there is a variation in that situation we will take a quick decision on what to do.”

By April 23, SARS had claimed over 225 lives worldwide and infected more than 3500 people. The WHO plans to hold an international scientific meeting in Geneva to review laboratory findings on June 17-18 and to discuss control strategies.
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