Israelis and Palestinians have found a ‘common enemy’ to fight – avian flu. Last week, four veterinarians from Gaza spent five days at The Israeli Agriculture Ministry’s Division of Avian Diseases laboratories near Tel Aviv, studying techniques for diagnosing and dealing with avian flu.

“For the Israelis and Palestinians avian flu is a common enemy,” said Palestinian delegation leader Dr. Said Sayem, from Gaza’s Veterinarian Services. “If we don’t work together on this everyone will lose out.”

The dire need for cooperation became clearly evident last March when an outbreak of avian flu was discovered at nine locations in Israel, followed three days later by eight cases of the flu in the Palestinian Autonomy. And the benefits of the sides’ joint efforts in this area have been tangible and impressive.

“Geographical borders mean nothing to diseases, and birds,” said Israeli lab head Dr. Shimon Perk who led the Palestinian delegation in their training. “I’m not a politician, but neither is this disease. It doesn’t differentiate between Palestinians and Israelis.”

To date, the avian bird flu virus has killed 95 people, out of 175 confirmed human cases worldwide from China to Turkey, according to the World Health Organization. The virus, first detected in birds, jumped to humans in 1997. So far, there have been no confirmed cases of people passing on the virus to other people, but there is no guarantee that it couldn’t occur and set off a worldwide epidemic.

“When the avian flu outbreak occurred in March 2006, we thought that if the flu showed up at one or two places we’d be able to deal with it,” he told ISRAEL21c. “When it turned out to be more we thought we had a catastrophe on ours hands. But thankfully, we solved the problem.”

The working visit last week of the Palestinian team was the result of an ongoing relationship between the two sides that has weathered all the ups and down of the last 12 years, according to Sayem, who was accompanied on the visit last week by Dr. Nael Qudai, Dr. Ashraf Eduan and Dr. Mahmoud Manama,

“We have been working together since the founding of the Palestinian Autonomy. We have an excellent professional relationship. Politics don’t get in our way,” he said, adding that sometimes things don’t always go smoothly.

“Sometimes the Israelis send us vaccines but the trucks can’t [immediately] come through the border due to security problems. But vaccines do get through.”

When they can’t meet, due to professional or other logistics, Perk and Sayem chat on the phone. “We have a hotline with Said and his colleagues in Gaza,” Perk explains. “So, if there is an emergency there we can, at least, give them advice by phone. We are also in touch with the veterinarian services on the West Bank, in Ramallah and other places. We work very well together with them too.”

One of the areas on which Sayem and his colleagues focused last week with their Israeli counterparts was how to operate a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) unit. This involves a technique which is used to amplify the number of copies of a specific region of DNA, in order to produce enough DNA to be adequately tested. The method can be used to identify very high-probability, disease-causing viruses and/or bacteria and plays a major role in identifying the incidence of avian flu around the world.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the facilities Dr. Perk and his colleagues have,” says Sayem. “But we hope to get our own PCR unit soon, so the training we are getting now is very important. That will give us a bit more professional independence but we will continue working with the Israelis and using their laboratory and other services.”

Even after the Palestinians receive the new PCR unit Perk expects the close working ties to continue. “I hope the Palestinians become more self-sufficient in terms of diagnosis, for their sake. But we will continue serving as there reference laboratory, just as I benefit from the services of other laboratories around the world. We all share information with each other, for the common good of advancing our knowledge in the field. You don’t want to play around with something like avian flu.”

The timing of the training visit by the Palestinian veterinarians was the result of a meeting in mid-November at the Erez crossing between Israeli Agriculture Ministry officials and their Palestinian counterparts to discuss ways to prevent an outbreak of the avian flu in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Last week’s visit was supported by the Peres Center for Peace as well as by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, efforts that greatly ease the financial burden on both sides.

“This support sometimes helps us provide the Palestinians with services without charging for them,” says Perk.

According to Perk, relations between the two sides have, in some cases, gone beyond just the professional sphere. “We also meet at the Erez border crossing (between Israel and the Gaza Strip) for discussions about our work, and we also meet up at conferences around the world.”

The latter, naturally, also involve other regional players. “The conferences also provide an opportunity to meet our colleagues from Jordan and Egypt and other countries, and we have regional committee meetings on veterinarian issues too,” Perk continues. “Some of us are now close friends. It is certainly a healthy relationship.”

As they toured the labs, Sayem explained that it wasn’t his first visit to the facilities. “I am a member of a Palestinian-Israeli subcommittee on veterinarian matters and have been here quite a few times before for regular meetings with our Israeli colleagues. We discuss the situation in Palestine and Israel, and elsewhere, the vaccines we use and the results we have achieved. It is important for us to maintain these contacts.”

For his part Sayem says the avian flu situation in Gaza is under control and there have been no further cases since the March outbreak.

“Working with the Israelis on this has been very beneficial. We [the Palestinians] have handled the avian flu situation better than any country in the Middle East, besides Israel,” he said.

Naturally, Sayem would be happier to collaborate with Israel in “healthier” areas but is grateful for the support. “Yes, in a way it’s strange that this disease has brought us closer together. But avian flu is not going to go away. You can’t stop birds migrating so we have to keep working together on this.”