The Virus Does not Stop at the Checkpoint

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Public health professionals are a very special breed of human being. They have chosen careers of both science and service. They work with the objective facts of biology, and yet they are deeply attuned to people’s feelings. I have been touched time and again by the rare combination of spirit and intellect that is shared by the MECIDS participants.

 

I began to meet these doctors and epidemiologists on an exploratory trip to Amman, Cairo, and Jerusalem in the fall of 2002. At that time, I knew that I wanted to do something, to build cooperation around the common threat of infectious diseases in the Middle East, but I did not know exactly what it would be. In each country, I was warmly received. Physicians and senior officials were willing to listen to someone whose background is in political science, not science, and they were almost immediately intrigued by the idea of working with their neighbors.

 

Better still was the group’s first meeting. The meeting began with presentation on the current state of Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian infectious disease and health monitoring, along with the challenges they faced. Everyone found that they had similar reporting systems that were adapted from World Health Organization guidelines. All shared the challenge of getting private sector physicians, hospitals, and clinics to report data. Food-borne disease emerged as a concern for Israeli, Jordanians, and Palestinians, while the Egyptians were more concerned about blood-borne diseases.

 

The spirit of the meeting was very positive, “more than exciting”, said an Israeli public health specialist. A Palestinian microbiologist added, “I expected more difficulty in finding common ground. People were professional around the table. We are one epidemiological family. We are brothers and sisters in blood.” More than one person used the slogan that sums up the need for MECIDS: “The virus doesn’t stop at the checkpoint”.

 

Even though political conflict creates bitter divisions, and violence has led to the destruction of health infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza, diseases can affect populations on all sides of the checkpoints and the borders. And so a response must be found that transcends borders.

 

By the time of the group’s third meeting, held in June 2003, in Larnaca, the personal warmth overflowed. A picture of the chiefs of two countries’ Centers for Disease Control sharing an illicit cigarette tells the whole story. Professional creativity also exploded at this meeting.

 

The participants started out by sharing their recent experiences with SARS. One physician, who had the right combination of medical expertise and a valid passport, was put on a plane with less than 24 hours’ notice and sent to Bangkok to spend two weeks inspecting passengers on his country’s national airline. Israel and Jordan were able to relay a successful example of coordination, in which one country notified the other about a young traveler who spiked a fever just before boarding a plane from Amman to Tel Aviv. While the traveler was found to be healthy, this mini-crisis opened lines of communication that had previously been blocked.

 

Drawing on these experiences, the members decided to establish a system for informing each other of outbreaks, which would begin at the unofficial level with the MECIDS participants and would work its way into the official national systems. Throughout their conversation, a freewheeling style dominated. They threw ideas around with abandon.

 

With the opening of this website, we are now implementing the system that has been designed, planned, and dreamed of for nearly two years. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with these spectacular public health specialists, and I hope that their contagious enthusiasm will help bring health and safety to all the people of Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.

 

Gayle Meyers Executive Director, MECIDS

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The Virus Does not Stop at the Checkpoint