x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Health advice issued for Haj pilgrims

Saudi Arabia's ministry of health says all pilgrims - especially the elderly, pregnant women and those with a range of heart, chest and kidney conditions - should be vaccinated against seasonal influenza. Good advice, but it offers no protection from the new virus.

Saudi Arabia's ministry of health says all Haj pilgrims - especially the elderly, pregnant women and those with a range of heart, chest and kidney conditions - should be vaccinated against seasonal influenza.

While good advice, there is no chance that any existing flu vaccine will offer protection against this new strain of coronavirus.

Even a vaccine for Sars remains elusive, says the WHO, and a decade after Sars became "the first emerging epidemic of the 21st century ... little is known of the immunology and pathogenesis of Sars that could guide rational vaccine development".

In its advice for pilgrims from the UK, the British National Health Service's travel health network and centre warns that "viral respiratory infection, known as Haj cough, experienced by many pilgrims at the Haj, can range from a mild inconvenience to a severe illness ... Simple precautions such as use of tissue to cover coughs and sneezes, safe disposal of the tissue and hand washing will help reduce the spread of respiratory infection".

The threat of communicable diseases has been a constant theme at Haj, which over the years has seen outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and various strains of meningococcal meningitis - infections for which the gathering of hundreds of thousands of people in proximity represents ideal conditions for transmission.

A certificate of vaccination against meningitis is required from all visitors to Saudi Arabia for Haj, while anyone from countries known to be infected with yellow fever must also show a vaccination certificate.

It is also recommended that polio vaccinations are up to date, and pilgrims from Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, India and Pakistan must have had one dose of oral polio vaccine at least six weeks before travel, and another upon arrival.

For now, though, and for the foreseeable future, there is no protection against Sars or a similar Sars-like human coronavirus.

Last week, Saudi Arabia's health ministry sought to dispel fears about the new virus.

In rare cases, it says, "a rare species of this virus entails acute complications to the respiratory system and kidneys, which may lead to death".

Nevertheless, "the ministry of health, while revealing this news, is keen to reassure citizens and residents, since the cases are very scarce, and the health situation is very assuring ... there is nothing to worry about".