|Medical advice for Hajj pilgrims |
YUSUFF ALI Sunday, September 21 2014
As Muslims in TT prepare to visit Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj, I would like to remind them of the advice given as far back as last July by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which urged the millions making the pilgrimage this year to exercise basic hygiene to help prevent the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, MERS.
Mark Jacobs of WHO said the MERS virus is acquired primarily through contact with camels but is spread among humans through body fluids and droplets. He said hand washing and keeping away from coughing people are simple ways to prevent the spread of the virus.
He added that there was a low chance of its spread in most settings…but people in large gatherings were more at risk. He explained that any gathering of large numbers of people can result in risks of infectious diseases.
Three months ago, Morocco advised its pilgrims not to go this year. At about the same time, Philippine health officials urged the country’s Muslims, especially the elderly and those with chronic ailments, to postpone their pilgrimage because of worries over MERS.
Since the virus first emerged in 2012, it has killed over 300 people in Saudi Arabia. There have been two sets of Hajj since the discovery of the virus but the good news for those going this year is that neither of the two saw any instance of pilgrims being infected.
There is more good news too for pilgrims who, although it is right that they should be warned about the possible dangers, should also be told about the latest official information released by the kingdom. Saudi health officials have said they are doing all they can to avoid an outbreak of the virus at this year’s Hajj.
The numbers situation as of last month was 855 cases overall, with 723 of these in Saudi Arabia. The death rate was 40 percent. At its peak in April and May this year, WHO was considering declaring MERS a public health emergency.
Symptoms of the virus include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. It can also cause pneumonia and kidney failure. Most of those who have died already had an underlying medical problem.
Knowledge about the virus is limited and it is still unclear whether its key source is camels or whether it could be another animal such as bats. Although there have been sporadic cases outside of Saudi Arabia, the vast majority of victims have been from the kingdom.
With around two million pilgrims now getting ready to go to Mecca for the Hajj, Saudi authorities are trying to head off the possibility of a significant outbreak. Professor Tariq Madani, the government’s scientific adviser on MERS, said, “We have done a lot of work to ensure that the Hajj goes smoothly without any cases.
“Being a virus transmissible from human to human is a big concern for Hajj. We have overcrowding and this is an excellent medium for a respiratory infection to spread.”
Most of the victims who caught MERS did so in hospitals. Poor infection control measures on wards meant people who came to hospital with the virus were able to spread it quickly to other patients as well as to health workers. Members of staff were not taking basic steps, such as washing their hands between patients and wearing masks properly. They were picking up the virus and passing it on to others.
It was after this spike in cases that the King sacked the health minister and other health officials. He then brought in a new team and things started to improve.
The number of new cases fell. The health ministry says thousands of health care workers have now been given strict training in infection control.
According to acting health minister Abdel bin Muhammad Fakeih, MERS is not an issue in Saudi anymore. He added, “We will do our best to ensure that we continue doing all we can to have a safe Hajj for all our guests.”
Well, that is their end of the bargain. It is now up to the pilgrims to follow the WHO advice which, when you come to think of it, is just strict rules of basic hygiene. If you are one of the TT pilgrims making the trip this year, have a successful Hajj and a safe return home.