File Photo: Pilgrims circle the Kaaba and pray at the Grand mosque during the annual hajj pilgrimage (Photo: Reuters)
Egypt is likely to place a temporary ban on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, a former health minister said, as concerns mount over the spread of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus.
MERS, which causes a respiratory disease, has claimed the lives of more than a hundred people in Saudi Arabia since it emerged in 2012. There have been a number of reported cases in other countries, with the first case detected in Egypt in April of this year.
Saudi Arabia said four people died on Wednesday, driving the death toll in the kingdom to 121 since the disease emerged in 2012. Rates of infection have surged in recent weeks after fresh outbreaks associated with hospitals in Jeddah and Riyadh. The total number of infections identified in the country so far is 449, nearly half of which during the month of April, according to the Saudi health ministry.
Egypt's health ministry has already warned that elderly people, children, and those suffering from chronic heart and chest diseases should avoid travelling to Saudi Arabia as the number of deaths continues to rise.
But former health minister Mohammed Awad Tag El-Din, who is also a member of the ministry's special team working on MERS and other influenza-linked viruses, said Egypt might resort to barring pilgrims from travelling to the kingdom altogether if the "epidemic status of the virus and its development" worsened. His remarks were reported on Wednesday by independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
International concerns have grown as the kingdom is expected to receive a huge influx of pilgrims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in July, and millions more in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in October.
However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it did not "recommend the application of any travel or trade restrictions, including for upcoming pilgrimage travel to Saudi Arabia." The statement on Wednesday came as a team of WHO experts concluded a 5-day mission to the kingdom to help assess the recent upsurge in cases.
"Yes we are not in the event of an epidemic, but caution, anxiety and observation must be exercised to combat the speared of the virus," Tag El-Din said.
The Egyptian official advised following infection prevention and control measures that, he says, include steering clear of suffers and wearing surgical masks in public.
Fifty percent of infections with the virus, for which there is no vaccine or anti-viral treatment, are fatal, he said, adding that new vaccines take 6-9 months to be developed.
The 27-year-old man who caught the disease, who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia, is now "in a stable condition" in a Cairo hospital, according to officials.
The virus has spread to several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Tunisia, as well as the United States and several countries in Europe.