Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian health officials are working together to diagnose and contain the new swine flu virus as part of a long-term mission to fight infectious diseases.The 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States is nothing compared to the short distances of about 100 miles between the major cities in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Borders, distances and how we cross them have taken on new significance lately with the latest outbreak of swine flu, or the H1N1 flu, a global epidemic. Especially severe in Mexico where it is thought to originate, the virulent virus knows no borders, and is a potential risk for people everywhere.
While it might seem that Israelis and Palestinians would have a difficult, if not impossible mission of working together to diagnose and contain H1N1, the reality is far from the truth. Without knowing it, they were preparing for what could become a pandemic, already last September.
The story starts six years ago, when nine top health officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and nearby Jordan formed a league – the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance (MECIDS), to stop the spread of food borne illnesses such as salmonella, across borders.
MECIDS is supported by the Search for Common Ground non-profit organization, the Global Health and Security Initiative, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Making the most of friendships
With three officials from each region taking part in MECIDS, rather than open up yet another organization to tackle avian flu in 2005 when the epidemic became a global concern, MECIDS officials from the respective Ministries of Health and Agriculture decided to add the new flu to their initiative.
“We decided to take the infrastructure of MECIDS with its people and friendships,” says Dr. Alex Leventhal, director of Israel’s Health Ministry Department of International Relations, who is a MECIDS member. Academic research from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority is now part of the collaboration.
The members all agreed that influenza — even more than food-borne diseases — does not respect national boundaries and that international planning against it would be essential. Even after the threat of avian flu went away, the group continued working together and last September held a joint meeting and exercise to simulate how the governments would act if faced with another flu epidemic.
Fully prepared with standardized diagnostic equipment, this past Friday MECIDS officials met in Jerusalem for a five hour meeting to plan how it will monitor and tackle swine flu should it continue to spread. Increasing the efficiency in their laboratories was one concern.
Egypt, which recently called to cull all its pig population, was also invited to join the meeting, as were reporters from Al Jazeera invited by the Palestinian representative Assad Ramlawi, the Palestinian director of public health services, who is now the chair of MECIDS.
Pandemic drills last September
“The idea behind MEDICS is that everybody is equal. So when I decided to be chairman of the group, I suggested it would be a rotating chair,” says Leventhal. “This isn’t part of the culture in Arab world,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
“Last September we had an exchange between the three parties and everyone was explaining what would be the national plan for a pandemic,” says Leventhal. What each party would do at each stage and what each country is going to do is now drafted in the plan.
Jordan and the Palestinian Authority now has the proper equipment to test for the H1N1 flu, but still, Israel has offered its lab services at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center – as backup or in the case where a second opinion will be needed, says Leventhal.
There is a common interest among members of this group, he explains. “For instance we have decided we have to upgrade the lab capabilities of the three countries. The organization has bought machinery for diagnostic equipment for the PA and Jordan and we’ve studied together. Now the same machine [for testing H1N1 flu] will be used in all three countries,” he says.
“If one country is stronger, the others will get more in order to harmonize,” says Leventhal, about the partnership.
A continued alliance to fight pandemics
“The Jordanians are checking anyone who comes in from Israel. We in Israel only hand out information pamphlets, we aren’t conducting tests based on the assumption that the chances of someone coming from Mexico to Jordan and then to Israel is low. We told them that if the need arises, the laboratory at Tel HaShomer is at their disposal,” Leventhal said in a previous news story.
He adds that the group is scheduled to meet again in two weeks. At present, there have been no confirmed cases of the flu strain in either Jordan or the Palestinian Authority. The lack of confirmed cases, however, does not rule out that cases do not exist there. It may be a question of education about the virus, and a citizen’s willingness to get checked.
“We decided we have to do some work together and will meet in the second week in May. If they want our help we can help provide the answers,” says Leventhal, offering Israel’s services.
At the time of writing this report, there were three confirmed cases of H1N1 virus in Israel, with none in the Palestinian Authority or Jordan.