Saudis forced to restrict haj pilgrims due to Mers cases

Those vulnerable to infection urged not to attend annual haj pilgrimage, as authorities battle coronavirus which has killed 38

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 7:17am

Saudi Arabia yesterday urged elderly and chronically ill Muslims not to perform the haj pilgrimage, to curb the spread of the Mers coronavirus which has killed 38 in the kingdom.

The elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases will not get haj visas this year, one Saudi newspaper quoted Health Ministry spokesman Khalid al-Mirghalani as saying.

The ministry issued a set of conditions for people wanting to perform the annual haj, which this year falls in October, or the year-round omra or minor pilgrimage. Hundreds of thousands also visit the kingdom during the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

Saudi missions abroad will begin issuing haj visas at the end of Ramadan.

The ministry recommended postponing pilgrimage this year "for the elderly and those suffering chronic illnesses, like heart, kidney, respiratory diseases, and diabetes". The statement did not set an age limit. People with immune deficiency, as well as children and pregnant women, are also listed.

Al-Mirghalani told the Saudi newspaper Arab News that the ministry had also spelt out the quarantine regulations of the kingdom. They include a valid certificate of vaccination against meningitis 10 days before the departure of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and for polio vaccinations by pilgrims hailing from countries where the disease is prevalent.

There is also an optional requirement for vaccination against influenza as a precaution against flu attacks, he added.

He said the ministry is insisting on pilgrims having proper personal hygiene. "Hands should be washed before eating. Disposable shaving kits should be used."

Wearing masks made of cloth during the performance of various haj rituals would be very useful in preventing respiratory infections, he said.

The Saudi decision comes after the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened emergency talks on Mers last week.

Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, WHO director-general, said she decided to convene the agency's emergency committee for just the second time to help protect travellers to the kingdom.

The committee includes the Saudi deputy health minister and officials from six other predominantly Muslim countries.

The WHO has not recommended any Mers-related travel restrictions, but says countries should monitor unusual respiratory infection patterns.

Saudi Arabia is battling to contain the spread of the Sars-like coronavirus, which has infected 65 people in the kingdom. That figure represents the majority of people affected worldwide - 81 cases of infection and 45 deaths - according to the WHO.

Mers is related to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which erupted in mainland China in late 2002 and Hong Kong in 2003, and spread into a global health scare.

On Friday, the UAE announced its first case of the virus. The Emirati citizen suffers from cancer and is being treated in hospital in the capital, the Abu Dhabi health authority said.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters