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Dengue fever disproportionately affecting migrant workers in UAE, report finds

Severe flooding in the country has left breeding grounds for mosquitos, leaving many labourers feeling ill and struggling to access healthcare
Men transport salvaged belongings in a canoe along a flooded street in Dubai on 29 April 2024 (AFP/Giuseppe Cacace)
Men transport salvaged belongings in a canoe along a flooded street in Dubai on 29 April 2024 (AFP/Giuseppe Cacace)

A prolongued dengue outbreak after severe flooding in the UAE is disproportionately affecting low-income migrant workers, according to a new report. 

In April, the UAE recorded as much as 254mm of rain in less than 24 hours, the highest level since records began in 1945. It led to at least five deaths and damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. 

The flooding also left pools of stagnant water, which created a breeding ground for mosquitoes that spread dengue, a viral infection passing from insects to humans. Symptoms include body aches, vomitting, nausea and swollen glands. 

According to a report by NGO Fair Square published on Monday, mosquito breeding sites in some areas housing migrant workers have been neglected by Emirati authorities, leaving residents seriously ill and struggling to access healthcare. 

In May, Emirati authorities warned residents to avoid stagnant water from the floods and to use mosquito repellents, after an influx of hospital patients with fevers and body aches. Dengue infections often result in mild symptoms, but occasionally can be more severe.  

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To prevent the outbreak, the UAE deployed nine specialist teams to eliminate 409 mosquito breeding sites. 

But ponds of stagnant water remained as recently as late June in areas with high populations of migrant workers, including in Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman and Ras al-Khaimah. 

A migrant worker in Sonapur, a neighbourhood of Dubai with 200,000 migrant labourers, said floodwater had remained for weeks after the flooding. 

"The big roads got cleared urgently but areas like this have had stagnant water for a very long time and now there are mosquitoes and all sorts of insects everywhere," the worker said. 

'My body was burning'

An Indian construction worker told Fair Square he became seriously ill in May. He was advised by his company to rest and take painkillers, but not bother going to hospital. 

"I got a really high fever and body aches. Then I started vomiting a lot. I could not leave my bed for, maybe, 20 days. And I was not the only one; at least six or seven others in the [labour accommodation] were feeling like this," he said. 

In Ajman, a Pakistani woman with minimal health insurance coverage contracted dengue weeks after the flooding. 

Climate change and cloud seeding 'exacerbated' deadly flooding in Gulf countries
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"I was feeling so sick. My body was burning… I asked my employers for some money so I could go to a better private clinic because I was feeling really bad, but they said that it was just all in my head and I should just rest," she said. "They were acting like they were doing me a favour for letting me rest."

Meanwhile, a Ugandan security guard said he was locked in a room by his employer with five ill colleagues who were suffering from rashes, fever, body aches and vomitting. 

He said employers only took the situation seriously and contacted government authorities after workers said they wished to return to their home countries.

Municipality officials then sent medical experts, who advised workers to rest and go to the hospital if particularly unwell. 

"It is clear that certain areas of the country have been neglected in the response, particularly the clearing up of water," James Lynch of Fair Square, told Middle East Eye. 

He said that "deep structural reasons" contribute to difficulty in access to healthcare for migrant communities, including reliance on employers for medical insurance and for information. He added that while some employers had good policies, it was effectively a "lottery". 

'It is clear that certain areas of the country have been neglected in the response'

James Lynch, Fair Square

"The UAE and other Gulf states have got to look at how workers can have equality of access to healthcare, so it doesn't depend on their employer," said Lynch. "And the best way of doing that is to give people access to healthcare free of charge at the point of delivery." 

Dengue fever, which is most common in tropical climates, is surging worldwide, partly due to climate change. 

In April, analysts told MEE that climate change, infrastructure, the region's geography, and cloud seeding could exacerbate flooding in the Gulf region.

Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the climate and water programme at the Middle East Institute, said climate change “is an absolute driver of extreme weather”. 

He told MEE: “Though we mostly associate climate change with hotter temperatures, warming in coastal areas promotes severe rainfall and storms.

"Such is the case for the Gulf, where those surrounding warmer waters (close to the equator) help to generate storms that produce intense rainfall that causes these devastating flooding events."

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