Saudi battle ready for MERS, Ebola as hajj kicks off

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From war-ravaged Iraq and Syria to Ebola-hit Nigeria and dozens of other nations, pilgrims are converging on Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj, the world’s largest Muslim gathering.

From early October, close to two million believers will congregate to follow the 1,400-year-old tradition of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.

“This is like a beautiful dream. I will never forget these moments,” Iraqi pilgrim Kazim Ibrahim, 69, said after reaching the holy city of Mecca.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest sites, where it is waging a different kind of battle to protect pilgrims from two deadly viruses, Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

The deadliest Ebola epidemic on record has infected more than 6,200 people in west Africa and killed nearly half of them, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Saudi Arabia is the country hardest hit by MERS, which last weekend claimed the life of a 27-year-old Saudi man in Taif, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) east of Mecca.

This brought to 317 the number of MERS deaths in Saudi Arabia since it first appeared in September 2012.

Research by Saudi scientists indicates that camels play a role in the transmission of the virus to humans.

In June the WHO said a surge in MERS cases had receded but countries should remain vigilant ahead of pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.

With such a large group of people concentrated in a limited area for a short time, “the hajj season constitutes a factor increasing the likelihood of outbreaks or epidemics of infectious diseases,” acting Health Minister Adel Fakieh said in a statement.

The ministry has created a “command and control centre” to direct its hajj health operation.

The centre assigned eight emergency consultant doctors to stand by for treatment of newly landed pilgrims’ heart attacks and other critical illnesses, said Fouad Hussain Sindi, the medical director at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah.

In another first, the command centre ordered 15 “isolation rooms” established at the airport, Sindi said.

Fewer than 30 people, including some with severe respiratory symptoms and Nigerian pilgrims with fever, were sent to isolation as a precaution and then released, Sindi told AFP in a telephone interview.

There have been no suspected cases of Ebola or MERS among pilgrims, he said.

Saudi Arabia has not allowed pilgrims to come from three West African nations hardest-hit by Ebola — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Every hajj visitor is given a health-screening card which must be filled in. It asks whether the traveller has been to an Ebola-infected country or had contact with an Ebola patient.

“As of now, we received around 500,000 or 600,000 cards,” said Sindi, describing the pilgrims as “very cooperative, all of them.”

Sindi heads a team of 640 doctors, technicians and other medical staff at the airport.

Among their tools are thermal cameras that detect high body temperatures.
The ministry advised elderly people and those with heart, kidney and other chronic diseases not to make the pilgrimage.

“But they come… The kingdom gives them instructions but unfortunately in some countries they are not following the instructions.”

The biggest challenge is posed by pilgrims who do not wash hands or take other preventative health measures as advised, Sindi said.

“We are worried” about the spread of infection, Sindi said, but as long as his team continues to follow WHO standards “we can prevent the spread of any disease” including Ebola.

Marred by stampedes, fires and other deadly incidents in the past, the hajj has in recent years been almost incident-free thanks to multi-billion-dollar safety projects by the authorities.

Saudi media said 85,000 security and civil defence officers will be on duty for the hajj, which lasts five days.

It is among the five pillars of Islam and all capable Muslims must perform the hajj at least once, the high point of their religious life.

After landing in Jeddah many grateful pilgrims prostrate themselves in a gesture of thanks to God, while some of the women ululate in a noisier expression of happiness that their dream has been realised.

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