Shelley Wood

May 04, 2012

May 4, 2012 (Geneva, Switzerland) — Leadership at the World Heart Federation (WHF) could be forgiven for wanting a little R&R in the wake of its biannual World Congress of Cardiology, which wrapped up two weeks ago in Dubai. Instead, the WHF has been on the defensive following a news story in last week's Jerusalem Post claiming that more than a dozen Israeli cardiologists had, at the last minute, been denied visas to attend Dubai, while the few who attended were forbidden to leave their hotels [1].

Johanna Ralston

In an interview with heartwire , WHF CEO Johanna Ralston acknowledged that a total of eight Israeli delegates had applied for visas--and five had had them denied last minute--but stressed that the original article in the Post contained "some misinformation" and "inaccuracies."

"We were disappointed that more visas were not granted," she said. "We had hoped for a larger number of visas to be approved, and we apologize to our colleagues in Israel who did not receive word regarding the status of visa applications until just before the congress was to start."

Prof Chaim Lotan, head of cardiology at Hadassah University Medical Center, who did not attend the WCC but was involved in arrangements for some of his colleagues, told the Post that three cardiologists who did manage to get visas "did not have an easy time."

"They were not allowed to leave the hotel and their visas were held during their visit," Lotan was quoted in the Post. "Apparently the government of Dubai did not want Israelis there."

One of those Israeli cardiologists, however, Dr Sami Viskin (Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center), told heartwire that "the Israeli physicians who actually entered Dubai . . . were treated in the best way possible. They were very friendly at all times."

Viskin also wrote to the Post, calling Lotan's statement "completely inaccurate."

"We were not only allowed to leave the hotel but were actually given VIP tours of Dubai city, and I have photographs at the top of the Burj Khalifa showing the three of us with our friendly Dubai escort," Viskin said in his email. "From the minute we landed in Dubai to the minute we left, we were escorted and protected by Dubai escorts and guards in the friendliest manner. . . . Those of us who were lucky to enter Dubai have only good words about the way we were treated there. The escort and policemen assigned to cover our security needs were not merely courteous or polite, they were forthcoming and openly friendly."

Post reporter Judy Siegel-Itzkovich has since written a follow-up story quoting Viskin [2].

An Abrupt Change of Plans

Dr Khaskia Abid (Heart Rehab Center at Meir Hospital, Kfar Saba) was one of the cardiologists whose visa was denied. He told heartwire in an email early Thursday morning that he was "very disappointed."

"I signed up for the WCC a few months ago, along with several doctors and cardiologists, Arab and Jews. I paid good money, and I canceled a lot of work programs to be able to attend."

He said the WHF had promised to arrange his visa, yet on the night before leaving, he received an email from Dubai authorities saying his visa had been denied.

qThe cardiovascular disease burden does not care about political boundaries and issues.

He has written to the WHF asking the organization to return the money he paid for his hotel as well as "full compensation for the distress caused me and my colleagues."

Ralston confirmed that she had received "a bunch" of irate emails but that the conference management company has since issued refunds for visas, hotel rooms, and relevant travel.

Israelis attending the meeting had been briefed in advance about security precautions being taken on their behalf, she told heartwire , adding that these precautions were handled "professionally and in a friendly way" by both sides.

"It's critically important that we can hold this meeting in diverse parts of the world," Ralston said. "The cardiovascular disease burden does not care about political boundaries and issues. It is everywhere. We had a very positive experience in Dubai and thought it was extremely professionally run and--for almost everyone--a very welcoming environment."

CVD Knows No Borders

She also pointed out that hosting the WCC in Dubai has "shone a light" on the burden of CVD in the Emirates, which has in recent years seen a meteoric rise in rates of cardiovascular disease risk factors. Dubai was also an excellent location for physicians, nurses, and students who can't spare the time or money to travel to meetings in Europe and North America, she added. Among the top countries represented at WCC 2012 were India--just a two-hour flight away--China, Serbia, and Brazil, she noted.

"The WHF focus is on low- and middle-income countries, on places where the CVD burden has been underrecognized and underresourced," Ralston explained. "And by holding congresses in places around which there are some political complexities, we are also able to deliver on our mission of bringing awareness of the CVD burden and the prevention and control of CVD. To the extent possible, we seek to work with our hosts to avoid or minimize any political issues, but in delivering on our mission we may occasionally face challenges."

WHF president Dr Sidney C Smith (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), also speaking with heartwire , pointed out that the WCC was the largest cardiovascular meeting ever held in the Middle East, "and the dialogue and scientific exchange among attendees were excellent. We've heard many favorable comments."

He continued: "Certainly political issues can arise from time to time, but I don't think they should stand in the way of trying to help patients."

Congress organizers in Dubai did everything they could to make sure things went as smoothly as possible, Smith added. "Nothing is ever perfect. Hopefully for the situations that did arise, people understand that the WHF did their best to see that everyone was treated fairly."

Asked if the WHF would ever consider holding its biannual meeting in Israel, Ralston said only, "We are committed to holding the meeting wherever we can deliver on our mission of increasing awareness of the CVD burden and bring as many people as possible and as affordably as possible. We do not rule out anything."

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