Wednesday, September 11, 2013

MERS Virus Looms as Hajj Pilgrims Arrive in Saudi Arabia

Millions of pilgrims will travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj
The first groups of Hajj pilgrims are setting out to Saudi Arabia for the annual ritual. This physical and spiritual journey is required of all Muslims who are able to make the trip. Most wait more than a decade for their turn to perform this important rite.

Jakarta Post reports the first groups of more than 26,000 are embarking from Java alone. They represent a small fraction of the more than three million people from over a hundred countries are expected to visit Mecca during this month. The places they will gather will be crowded with the faithful from all social classes and countries.

In addition to being the destination for millions of travelers, Saudi Arabia is also 'ground zero' for the mysterious Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which has infected over a hundred people in the middle east, most from Saudi Arabia.

MERS is a genetic cousin to the SARS virus but with some important differences. SARS was more easily transmitted between humans but MERS is more deadly, with a shockingly high mortality rate of 50%.

Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo doesn't seem concerned about MERS. According to the Jakarta Post:
“There is no need to be afraid of the virus,” said Ganjar, adding the meningitis vaccine the pilgrims had already received and a healthy lifestyle during their stay in the holy land would see them avoid contracting the virus...He said all pilgrims had been given meningitis shots from the end of July but admitted the vaccine did not cover the corona virus."
Health groups are worried about the potential for these pilgrims to carry the virus back to their home countries, spreading the virus around the world. So far, it has only been found in eight countries on the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 114 cases of MERS with 54 deaths to date.

As researchers struggle to find an animal host and develop effective treatments for the disease, criticism of the Saudi government is growing for a seemly lack of timely and detailed information on the continuing outbreak in that country.

The World Health Organization (WHO), in Travel Advice on MERS-CoV for Pilgrimages, have advised children under 12, elderly or chronically ill to postpone their trip and those traveling to follow common sense hygiene practices. They advise,
"Countries should make information known to departing pilgrims and travel organizations on general travel health precautions, which will lower the risk of infection in general...Health advisories should be made available to all departing travellers to Umra or Hajj by working with the travel and tourism sectors and placing such materials at strategic locations (eg. travel agent offices or points of departure in airports)...different kinds of communication, such as health alerts on board planes and ships, and banners, pamphlets and radio announcements at international points of entry, can also be used to reach travellers...travel advisories should include current information on MERS-CoV and guidance on how to avoid illness while travelling.
However, there is no information available at airports about the virus, no public service announcements on TV or radio. Information about the rising numbers of cases has been slow and lacks detail.

In this poorly translated and unconfirmed report from H5N1 blog, Saudi officials have complained about the 'rumors' about MERS online and stated they are not withholding information about the virus or numbers of infected. But the statement goes on to include unreported numbers of infected nurses and alleges that health care workers were required to sign a pledge not to discuss the matter with the media or online.

There is much confusion and conflicting information about this disease. The head of the World Health Organization called MERS "a threat to the entire world." Yet, it is not considered an international public health emergency and no travel restrictions or screenings for the ill at airports has been ordered.


image: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/9628218/Millions-of-Muslims-gather-in-the-Saudi-city-of-Mecca-to-perform-the-Hajj.html

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