Nurses have become one of the Philippines' top exports, helping fill shortages of caregivers at hospitals around the globe. But credentials for thousands of would-be nurses are under a cloud because of alleged cheating in recent certification exams.

Rushing to protect the reputation of the country's nurses, the government has promised to punish those responsible. Several investigations are under way, but no arrests have been made.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, insists the leak of questions in at least two of five test subjects during the June 11-12 nursing board exams was an "isolated incident."

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"This should not be cause for any stigma on our nurses or other professionals who remain to be among the best in the world," Bunye said this week.

That's not very soothing for recent graduates who had hoped to get nursing jobs in the United States, Europe or other parts of Asia but find themselves in a legal limbo.

The Court of Appeals has ordered a 60-day suspension for oath-taking by new nurses pending a hearing on the validity of the exams. More than 17,000 of the 42,000 people who took the exams passed.

Some people are urging the government to hold the examinations again, but no decision has been made and some of those who took the tests have staged protests demanding that the results be accepted.

Lilian Grace Yangot, a graduate from northern Baguio city and one of the first to publicly expose the leaks, isn't sure what the scandal will mean for her plans to work in New Zealand.

She told The Associated Press she feared that only a repeat of the exams would redeem the reputation of the latest class of nurses and the country's nursing profession.

"But even if we have a retake, it's not a 100 percent assurance that all of us who passed will pass again," she said. "And if we do not retake, will hospitals accept us?"

Yangot said one of her classmates was turned down by a Philippine government hospital where he offered to serve as a volunteer nurse without pay. He was told his nursing class "is not yet cleared" of the controversy, she said.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration says 7,768 nurses went to work abroad last year, down from 12,822 in 2001. The top six countries employing Filipino nurses are Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Britain, Taiwan, Ireland and the United States.

Josefina A. Tuazon, dean of the College of Nursing at the University of the Philippines, recently returned from a trip to the United States where she found a "very strong apprehension about what image this will give to our country and the Filipino nurses."

She expects, however, that there will no immediate repercussions on the hiring policies of American hospitals.

"The need in the U.S. is so great, the shortage is so great, they will still need to recruit us," she said. "But what we're trying to communicate to them ... is to be very selective in the kind of schools where you get your recruits from. You want to make sure that the recruits are qualified and top quality."

Leonor Rosero, head of the Professional Regulation Commission, which administers board exams for nursing and 41 other professions, said an internal investigation confirmed that all 500 questions on the subject of psychiatric nursing had been leaked. One hundred of those questions appeared in the latest test.

About 20 questions on surgical nursing also were leaked, Rosero said.

She said two members of the nursing board prepared the exam questions but she did not accuse them of leaking the test questions, which were in handwritten and typed notes.

"We found out that these manuscripts belonged to the two board examiners. How it traveled from their possession ... we were not able to establish," Rosero told AP.

The scandal could torpedo efforts by the government to persuade the U.S. National Council of State Boards of Nursing to hold licensing exams here for Filipino nurses who want to work in America.

"One concern is examination security," said Rino Paez, senior emigrant services officer from the Council of Filipinos Overseas. "If we cannot protect our own professional examination, how do we protect the examinations of a foreign entity?"