MERS: Advice for pilgrims before and after Hajj
No cases reported in Egypt, but caution is necessary, especially for pilgrims
Ingy Deif, Sunday 29 Sep 2013
The nightmare of SARS, which took the world by storm in 2003 and spread by person-to-person contact, is still vivid in global memory. It started in Asia and then went global, infecting thousands.
When Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) - which belongs to the same family of viruses as SARS - was first identified, it made headlines all over the world.
The origin of the virus is still shrouded in mystery, though some theories point to the possibility of a viral mutation, as it initially passed from animals to humans.
The Corona viruses are strains that people commonly get afflicted by at some point in their lives.
The name comes from their surface, which is covered by thorns that look like crowns. This family of viruses includes MERS, SARS and the common cold, among others.
Unlike SARS, MERS does not spread easily between humans. Its symptoms are similar to those of the flu, but it can additionally cause kidney failure.
Understandably, MERS has caused much anxiety, with confirmed global cases now reaching 114 with a death toll of 54, according to the latest statistics issued on 7 September by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The disease, which is still shrouded in mystery, has no direct cure or vaccine. Most cases have resulted from contact with animals, which are believed to be the primary source of the virus. However, the WHO stated that it is increasingly probable that the virus is also spread by human-to-human contact.
With the time for Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage) nearing, fear is mounting that an epidemic might break out in Saudi Arabia, where most of the original cases where discovered.
The spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Health, Dr Khaled Al-Mirghilany, said that until now no cases have been detected among pilgrims and that Saudi Authorities have issued a maximum alert to detect cases and contain any possible threat.
"We did not receive a note from the Saudi government referring to potential risks or hazards. If we do, prompt action will be undertaken by the Ministry of Health," says General Hassan Yahia, vice-head of the Hajj delegation this year.
What pilgrims need to know
Dr. Iman El-Tahlawi, Assistant Professor of Public and Environmental Health at the National Research Institute, says that although in Egypt no cases have been recorded and the virus is rather weak, caution is a necessity for those participating in Hajj.
"It is the responsibility of every person to closely monitor themselves during the period of Hajj and afterwards for signs of infection, and to promptly report to the health authorities if in doubt," she says.
El-Tahlawy gives the following guidelines for safety:
MERS symptoms are very similar to the common cold: fever, cough, & breathing difficulties. The difference is that with MERS, a high temperature persists for more than three days, even with regular fever reducing medication.
It is advised that individuals, especially the elderly and those who already suffer from respiratory problems, stay away as much as possible from extremely crowded gatherings.
If it is necessary to be in crowds, stay away from those showing symptoms of respiratory disease.
Using disposable masks is good protection.
Washing hands or using antiseptic frequently is important.
General hygiene is recommended regarding food and beverages: Clean water, thoroughly washed fruits and veggies, and no undercooked meat.
This conforms to the general guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation which provided other recommendations as follows:
A medical consultation to examine risks and assess the possibility of Hajj without further complications is a necessity for pilgrims with major medical conditions, such as diabetes, or lung disease.
General information on health precautions during travel should be provided by individual countries for pilgrims.
Health advisories should be available and in strategic locations for pilgrims.
Adequate testing facilities and labs for detecting MERS should be provided.
Medical staff should be provided with up to date information.
Those who develop severe acute respiratory symptoms with a fever and cough must minimise contact with others, cover their mouth and nose upon sneezing or coughing - with a tissue or the upper sleeve if necessary rather than the palms of the hand - and report to the nearest medical facility.
Those who develop severe respiratory illness during the period of two weeks after returnurning should seek medical help. The same applies to those surrounding the pilgrim.
Medical facilities should be alerted regarding any possible MERS cases in the interval following the return of pilgrims.