02 February 2006

Saudi Arabia: Only recompression chamber in western parts shut down

The only publicly accessible recompression chamber which is capable of treating decompression sickness — commonly known as the bends — in western Saudi Arabia is permanently shut.

The chamber has been non-functional for some months now, and there are no plans either to repair or staff it. According to sources, because the chamber is old, it is beyond reasonable repair.

"The lack of a public recompression chamber will prove a major obstacle to divers choosing the Kingdom's superb marine environment to dive in," said David Kirk, diver and manager at Al-Nakheel Beach north of Jeddah. "This is further compounded by the fact that there is no single emergency telephone number to alert all the necessary emergency services to an incident."

This view was reflected by a major dive-holiday operator in Jeddah.

"If it were not for the excellent military facilities in Jeddah," said Eric Mason, manager at Al-Ahlam Marina and responsible for large numbers of foreign divers' safety each year, "the lack of a publicly accessible recompression chamber would make me much more cautious about inviting divers to the Kingdom."

The military chamber, however, is not generally open to the public.

The non-functional chamber, located at the GNP hospital in Jeddah, was formerly a lifeline to divers suffering from decompression sickness. In the treatment of the bends, the time between recognition of symptoms and recompression of the patient is critical; the shorter the time, the higher the chance of complete recovery.

Currently, the chamber is in need of repair. Sources said that there was no specialist operator available and that it had been out of commission for about six months.

The bends — a condition caused by the rapid decrease of ambient pressure which results in the release of nitrogen bubbles into the bloodstream — can be crippling and occasionally fatal. The most effective cure is to recompress the victim in a sealed chamber so that the gas re-dissolves and then decompress the patient slowly and gradually over several hours.

Late last year, a young Saudi lawyer became a victim of Central Nervous System (CNS) bends while on a dive north of Yanbu. Kilometers from land, there was no helicopter or fast patrol boat to transport him to the nearest hospital — in Yanbu where there is no public chamber anyway. He was transported by road to the GNP chamber in Jeddah; the chamber was out of service.

Ultimately, by using influential connections, he was authorized to use the first-rate medical facilities and Royal Saudi Navy recompression chamber at King Fahd Naval Base south of Jeddah. It was over seven hours between the onset of the problem and his eventual insertion into the chamber.

A CNS bend is extremely serious and can lead to permanent paralysis or brain damage. In extreme cases, the bends can kill. The young man's life was almost certainly saved by chance as on the boat were several highly qualified medical personnel who were also extremely experienced divers.

The nearest public chamber to the Red Sea is located in Jubail on the Kingdom’s east coast. To transport a diver from the west of the Kingdom would seriously imperil him, both from the delay in reaching the chamber and from the altitude needed by aircraft to clear the central highlands of the Kingdom. A decrease in pressure in the aircraft would aggravate the condition, massively increasing the chance of serious injury.

Diving is a major tourist attraction, bringing substantial income to the Kingdom. There has been major investment in marinas and equipment — particularly in the Jeddah area — to sustain this highly profitable section of the tourist industry.

Mason said that dive tourism from overseas was growing "by leaps and bounds" and had doubled each year for the last three years. "Overseas divers only dive with computers and backup," he said. This minimizes the risk of contracting a bend. "If the tourists do not carry a dive computer and backup, they do not dive on our boats. It is the domestic market where the danger exists. Many of these people do not dive using computers; they dive using analogue equipment and that is where mistakes are made."

Dive tourism, apart from the income, promotes the Kingdom's unique underwater environment and raises awareness of environmental matters among the general public.

The overriding consideration of any dive tour operator is safety. If the last remaining essential safety feature for a diver with a possibly fatal bend is now unavailable, the effect on the fledgling tourist industry could be disastrous. Already, Diver Aware Network — an organization concerned with diving safety and PADI — one of the diver qualifying organizations — is aware of the current lack of facilities in the Kingdom.

Source: www.arabnews.com


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