x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Haj pilgrims must show proof of swine flu vaccinations

Haj pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia this month must show proof of having had an H1N1 vaccination before being allowed to leave the UAE.

The nurses Fatima al Shameri, left, and Mona Abdul Rahman prepare swine flu vaccine at the Emirates Centre for Studies and Strategic Research in Abu Dhabi.
The nurses Fatima al Shameri, left, and Mona Abdul Rahman prepare swine flu vaccine at the Emirates Centre for Studies and Strategic Research in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Haj pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia this month must show proof of having had an H1N1 vaccination before being allowed to leave the UAE, officials at the Ministry of Health said yesterday. Pilgrims need to be armed with the yellow, passport-sized International Certificate of Vaccination, which will be provided to each person who receives the newly arrived Pandemrix H1N1 vaccine.

"This yellow health card is very important for every pilgrim; it can help save lives," said Dr Mahmoud Fikri, executive officer of health policy affairs at the ministry. The ministry had initially announced that the vaccine would not be compulsory for anyone. Saudi Arabia will not bar anybody considered at high risk for swine flu from performing the Haj pilgrimage this year and has not made it mandatory for pilgrims to be vaccinated against H1N1.

"We have decided to make it mandatory for Haj pilgrims to take the swine flu vaccine in order to protect them, protect their families and protect all those around them who they come in contact with," said Dr Fikri, who is also the chairman of the national committee for combating swine flu. The ministry yesterday launched a national campaign for pilgrims' awareness of H1N1 and the importance of taking the vaccine for those same pilgrims.

Members of the official UAE Haj delegation were vaccinated at the international airport yesterday before heading to Saudi Arabia, said Mohammed Obeid al Mazrouei, the head of the UAE's Haj mission. "This disease is a challenge for all of us," he said, "and as the country's official Haj delegation, we now have the means to help our pilgrims in every way, including in protecting them from this disease."

The ministry will designate four centres in Dubai and another 30 across the northern emirates where pilgrims can go to complete the pre-Haj medical checks and receive the vaccine. In Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia, they can visit any disease prevention and screening centre for the vaccine. "We cannot have the vaccine present everywhere and in every medical centre, but we will make sure that pilgrims are told where to go," said Dr Fikri.

In total, 6,228 pilgrims are expected to participate in Haj this year from the UAE, of them 1,000 are Emirati. Dr Abdul Karim al Zarouni, head of the UAE Haj mission's medical team, said all pilgrims would receive medication free. "Whether pilgrims need medicines for underlying, chronic diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes, or need medication for ailments that may arise during the Haj period, we will provide them with all their medical needs," said Dr al Zarouni.

While it normally takes 15 days for swine flu antibodies to peak in the body after vaccination, no deadline has been set for pilgrims who want the vaccine. "We cannot stop this disease, so we have to give everyone a chance," said Dr Fikri, "and pilgrims have to make sure they are vaccinated before they are due to depart." He added that the body starts some antibody production immediately at the time of vaccination, stimulating the immune system. Although Haj pilgrims will not be completely safe for at least two weeks after vaccination, they can still get vaccinated the day they depart and it will make a difference.

Dr Amir Rashid, a general practitioner at Medcentre in the capital, is preparing to head to Mecca next week with his wife to partake in the Haj rituals. He is relieved, he said, to know that the vaccine has arrived in time for his wife and he to take it before they head to the densely populated city. "It is right for the ministry to decide to make it a must for all pilgrims to receive their vaccine; people cannot just listen to rumours and decide not to vaccinate themselves when it is a viable way to stay safe and healthy," he said.

What must be remembered, stressed Dr Rashid, is that Haj attracts three million people around the world and will begin this year during the approach of the winter flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. "A massive spread of swine flu because of Haj is not impossible to imagine, with millions of people praying shoulder to shoulder and being in such proximity to one another." The Haj pilgrimage, required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, has become a concern for world health officials because of the density of pilgrims.

To that end, free antiviral medication is stockpiled in all clinics in the holy sites, and other preparations in Saudi Arabia include installing thermal screening equipment at entry points to detect passengers with fevers and special hospitals for quarantining those who catch the disease. Dr Fikri stressed that the vaccine was brought to the UAE in time for the Haj season for a good reason: for the safety of pilgrims and their families.

"May all our pilgrims return to us in good health," he said. hkhalaf@thenational.ae