Foreign Arab doctors may train in Israel

Exclusive: Sarkozy adviser wants to bring medical staff from Mediterranean for advanced training.

Rambam urology 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Rambam urology 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
A leading French geneticist and pediatrician who is an adviser to French President Nicolas Sarkozy is promoting a project that would bring Arab doctors and nurses and others from Mediterranean countries to Israel for advanced training, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Prof. Arnold Munnich, chief of the Necker Hospital Center for genetics in Paris and research director of its "genetic handicaps" unit, told the Post on Wednesday he had encountered approval and enthusiasm for the project, which he hoped would receive funding from the European Union and other public and private sources. He said it would be one facet of the Union for the Mediterranean (previously known as the "Mediterranean Union") - a community initiated by Sarkozy in July to bring together EU members and several other countries that border the Mediterranean, as well as Jordan and Mauritania. Among other things, Sarkozy, who proposed the union during his 2007 election campaign, regards his plan as a way of promoting peace between Israel and Arab states. "Until now, there has been no political opposition, but we are only launching it," Munnich said. Munnich, who is currently lecturing at an international conference on genetics organized by the Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva, came to mark the establishment of the Raphael Recanati Genetics Center on the campus. "President Sarkozy, who is the current president of the EU, wants to bring together the Mediterranean countries so they can share as many skills and resources as possible. I suggested that he support not only physics research at CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research] and water management but also health and genetics; he agreed," said Munnich, who is Jewish, speaks Hebrew and visits Israel three or four times a year, mostly for collaboration on medical genetics research. The Union of the Mediterranean, based in Barcelona, is meant to bring together countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel, the French geneticist said. He envisions training Arabs and other doctors and nurses from union member states at Beilinson and at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, both of which have much expertise in such training of foreigners. "Israel would be a great contributor to such a program," he said. "Officials in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have already agreed to this, and I have a meeting with Egyptian officials soon." The Union of the Mediterranean was conceived by Sarkozy as a "looser grouping than the EU in which the people of the Mediterranean would do the same thing, with the same goal and the same method" as the European Union, though it would not be modeled on the EU. Despite the political conflicts, said Munnich, officials in Arab countries realized that Israel had carried out very advanced medical research and had much experience in treating genetic disorders in children resulting from consanguinity (marriage of first cousins). All participants would benefit from cooperation, he said. "In Jordan, up to 75 percent of couples are consanguineous marriages, and it is common in many Arab villages in Israel. I don't blame them, but they need more awareness about the terrible genetic diseases that can result in their children. We can train their nurses to explain it to Arabs in the Mediterranean region despite relatively low levels of literacy," he said. Munnich's research and prenatal counseling have helped hundreds of families affected by genetic illnesses, and he and his team have identified some 30 genes responsible for a variety of diseases affecting children. He said that Israeli scientists "are very advanced, innovative and audacious; most other Western societies are much more conservative than Israel. "Abortion is forbidden in many countries, such as Italy and Spain. Even pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of embryos is not permitted in some countries. They worry about gene therapy and stem cells," he said, but Israeli researchers have the go-ahead for such research because Jewish law is liberal on this issue and allows experimentation on unused embryos for developing lifesaving procedures. Munnich is friends with all of Israel's leading medical geneticists, and at his 650-bed medical center - "the oldest children's hospital in the world, founded in the 17th century" - he performs research in collaboration with Israeli counterparts. "Genetic and stem cell research in Israel is among the world's best," he said. Munnich, whose great-grandfather Shmuel Minnick was a ritual slaughterer and whose current name is either a Germanization of the word minhag (custom) or derives from the city of Minsk, first visited Israel in 1966. "The Recanati center will be outstanding. I feel as if I were with my family when I attend such events in Israel," he said.