When Censorship Spreads Disease

Maryn McKenna in Wired criticizes the Saudi government handling of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) for trying to control information about the spread of the disease:

While we wait to see the full extent of MERS, the one thing the world can do is to relearn the lesson of SARS: Just as diseases will always cross borders, governments will always try to evade blame. That problem can’t be solved with better devices or through a more sophisticated public-health dragnet.

The solution lies in something public health has failed to accomplish despite centuries of trying: persuading governments that transparency needs to trump concerns about their own reputations. Information can outrun our deadly new diseases, but only if it’s allowed to spread.

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Five New MERS Cases Confirmed in Eastern Saudi

Saudi Arabia confirmed on Tuesday five new cases of the new MERS coronavirus. The Ministry of Health said in a brief statement published on its website that the five cases were reported in the Eastern Province in patients aged between 73 to 85. All of them have chronic diseases, the ministry said. This raises to 35 the number of confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia, the highest number by far in the world. Other cases have also been detected in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, UAE, Germany, Britain and France.

Saudi Confirms Another Death from MERS Coronavirus

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health confirmed on Wednesday that a foreign man has died by the new MERS coronavirus. The man was hospitalized few days ago in the central region of Qassim due to a severe reparatory infection and died on Tuesday, the Ministry said in a brief statement published on its website. Al-Riyadh daily cited a statement by the Health Affairs Directorate in Qassim saying the man was 63 years old and suffered chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. A spokesman told the newspaper that a team of experts will visit Qassim to ensure that healthcare providers have not contracted the virus which has killed 17 people in Saudi Arabia so far.

Saudi Female Nurses On Strike to Protest Serving Male Patients

More than 15 Saudi female nurses went on a strike last week because they don’t want to work with male patients, the daily al-Watan reported on Friday. The nurses who work at Hassan al-Afaliq Rehabilitative Healthcare Center in Mubarraz, eastern Saudi Arabia, told the newspaper they find it embarrassing to change catheters for male patients or bathe them.

The nurses are demanding that the hospital administration hire male nurses to do these tasks, according to the newspaper, which attributed to a nurse saying that the administration argued that treating male patients is part of the contract the nurses signed when they accepted the job. The nurse admitted that this was indeed part of the contract, but said that it does not cover bathing patients.

Al-Hayat daily reported on Wednesday that the striking nurses have written letters to the Head of Health Affairs in al-Ahsa region, where the government-run hospital is located, to protest “being forced to see men’s private parts during bathing them and changing their clothes.” The nurses also wrote another letter to the chief of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice as they consider dealing with male patients a violation of fatwas issued by senior religious scholars in Saudi Arabia.

Since they have begun their strike last week, the nurses have been coming to the hospital everyday and sitting inside one room until the end of their shifts when they sign out and leave. A dozen of nurses have been investigated by the Health Affairs department in the region, the newspaper said.

Saudi Arabia is a conservative Muslim country where gender segregation rules are strictly enforced. Government hospitals are one of the few places in the country where men and women can work side by side. But religious conservatives remain unhappy about the status quo.

Some clerics have in the past warned parents against sending their daughters to medicine schools because they will end up working in mixed hospitals. At the same time, conservatives want their female relatives to be only treated by women doctors to the point that they would often refuse to see the doctor if the only available doctor is a man.

Last December, a Saudi man sparked controversy when he tweeted that Saudi female doctors and nurses are promiscuous. Okaz newspaper reported that female doctors and nurses were seeking legal action against the man for defamation.

Popular television talk show host Turki al-Dakhil wrote that he hopes people would stop slandering Saudi women working as nurses. “To attack Saudi women working in this profession means opening the door for female nurses from outside the country,“ he said, “thereby keeping these jobs outside the Saudi purview.”

To change that negative perception, Saudi nursing students at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah produced a video released on the International Nurses Day this month highlighting the their role and showing society’s appreciation to their work. “I’m proud to be a nurse,” the narrator said, “and proud of my job to put a smile on the patents’ faces.”

Due to the conservative resistance to women studying medicine and limited capacity of medical schools in the country, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly independent on foreign doctors and nurses. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Health earlier this year, almost 77 percent of doctors working at government hospitals are non-Saudi. As for nurses, only 52 percent of them are Saudi nationals.

Religious conservatives say they have a solution to this problem: segregated hospitals. Such hospitals, they argue, would preserve the privacy and sanctity of Muslim women seeking healthcare and would also encourage more young women to work in the field. In 2009, a group of clerics and doctors wrote letters to the Minister of Health and the Shoura Council demanding women-only hospitals. The signatories claimed that they have a plan to ensure that such hospitals would be successful.

However, experts in the field told al-Sharq newspaper that the calls to segregate hospitals are unrealistic and cannot be achieved.

“A hospital is not only a doctor,” said Fatima al-Mulhem, an oncologist at King Fahad University Hospital in Khobar. “The doctor needs the services of nurses, technicians and other staff.” Al-Mulhem added that the concerns about failing to respect Islamic principles are unjustified. Most hospitals would consider the requests of patients to be treated by male or female doctors, she said, except in emergency cases that require saving lives regardless of the gender.

The government does not see the benefits of building segregated hospitals. Ministry of Health’s spokesman Khaled Marghalani told the newspaper that while they always look forward to provide more services, they believe that healthcare services offered to women are adequate and protect their privacy.

Coronavirus Kills Another Saudi

Saudi Arabia confirmed on Monday the death of one of the patients infected by the novel coronavirus, which some scientific journals now refer to as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS. The Ministry of Health published a short statement on its website saying the patient had chronic heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and renal failure. This raises to 16 the number of deaths by the virus. MOH also said that one of the healthcare professionals who contracted the virus is improving and has left the hospital. No new cases has been recorded since the last one that was announced on Friday.

Saudi Confirms 31st Coronavirus Case

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health confirmed on Friday another case of the novel coronavirus in the Eastern Province. “One case of coronavirus has been reported in the Eastern region, and he is now under medical care and receiving proper treatment,” MOH said in a brief statement published on its website. The new discovery raises to 31 the total number of nCov infections in the country since the SARS-like virus first emerged in September 2012. Most cases have been recorded at the oasis of Al-Ahsa in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia.