MECCA // Saudi authorities have not yet recorded any cases of the deadly Mers virus ahead of Haj, with the kingdom hosting some three million Muslim pilgrims.
“So far, no case for any epidemic has been recorded among the pilgrims, especially the coronavirus,” Saudi media quoted Health Minister Abdullah Al Rabia as saying.
The Mers virus has already claimed 58 lives worldwide, with the greatest number of deaths from the respiratory disease — 49 — in Saudi Arabia itself.
“The ministry has put in place very strict measures this year,” the Al Riyadh daily cited the health minister as saying.
“Employees have been given strict orders to isolate any suspected case and carry out the necessary laboratory tests” to ensure the safety of pilgrims on the Haj.
Mr Al Rabia said up to 600 public health employees wearing face masks were deployed at the Jeddah international airport to screen arriving pilgrims and ensure they had the necessary vaccinations.
The World Health Organisation said on Friday that the number of Mers infections worldwide has risen to 136, after Saudi Arabia confirmed six new cases.
The fact that the kingdom accounts for the overwhelming majority of cases has raised concerns about Haj.
The Haj is one of the largest gatherings in the world, and there are fears that pilgrims could be infected and return to their homelands carrying the virus.
However, the authorities have said they are optimistic that it will pass off without any outbreak, given that Muslims also go on lower-level pilgrimages at other times and there has been no mass spread of the virus.
Riyadh has urged the elderly and chronically ill to avoid performing Haj this year. Authorities have also advised pilgrims to wear face masks.
Experts are struggling to understand the Mers coronavirus, for which there is still no vaccine.
It is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the Sars virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine per cent of whom died, and sowed economic chaos.
Like Sars, Mers is believed to have jumped from animals to humans. It shares the former’s flu-like symptoms, but differs by also causing kidney failure.