MUSLIMS travelling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Umrah and Hajj (pilgrimage) are being asked to take special precautions following an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, otherwise known as MERS-CoV.
The warning comes from Dr Yitades Gebre, adviser, Family Health Disease Management at the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In a statement issued to the media last Thursday, Gebre said the first case of MERS-CoV was reported in 2012 and has affected nine countries to date.
“Globally, from September 2012 to July 21, 2013, WHO has been informed of a total of 90 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV, including 45 deaths.
Common symptoms in patients with MERS-CoV are acute, serious respiratory illness with fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties,” he said.
According to the WHO, people who would have contrived the virus present with pneumonia and other gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhoea. Some patients have also had kidney failure.
Gebre says while at this time the risk that an individual pilgrim performing Umrah or Hajj will become infected with MERS-CoV is considered very low, it is best to be careful.
“While WHO does not recommend any travel or trade restrictions or entry screening, there are actions that should be undertaken before, during and after pilgrimage.
“Pilgrims with preexisting major medical conditions such as chronic diseases such as diabetes or immunodeficiency are more likely to suffer medical problems, including MERS-CoV infection, during travel. These people should consult with their doctors before travelling.”
“People can reduce their risk of infection from many diseases by washing hands often with soap and water or, if their hands are not visibly dirty, a hand sanitiser,” he said.
The WHO and PAHO do not yet know what the source of the virus is, but preliminary research shows that avoiding undercooked meat or food prepared in unsanitary conditions, and washing fruits and vegetables before eating them can reduce the risk of diseases commonly associated with travel.
Travellers are meanwhile being advised that if they should develop a respiratory infection, vomiting or diarrhoea during the pilgrimage, they should minimise their contact with others; cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or a sleeve when coughing or sneezing; and report to medical staff or local health services as soon as possible.
Furthermore, “people should seek medical attention and notify health authorities if they develop acute respiratory illness during the two weeks after their return,” Gebre said.