Hajj is considered one of the five “pillars” of Islam. Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage once in a lifetime, if they are physically and financially able to make the journey to Mecca.
Every year, millions of Muslims from around the world make the journey to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the annual pilgrimage (or Hajj). Dressed in the same simple white clothing to represent human equality, the pilgrims gather to perform rites dating back to the time of Abraham.
This year, Hajj is expected to fall between October 13-18, 2013.
As important as Hajj is in the life of a Muslim, there is a good reason why a Muslim who is financially capable might not want to go this year, it is MERS.
MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is a SARS-like coronavirus MERS that centres on Saudi Arabia, although there have been laboratory-confirmed cases originating in Jordan, Qatar and the UAE.
The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia. The count has ticked up steadily, with a flurry this May and June taking it to 77, the bulk of them in the kingdom.
Forty MERS patients have died to date, an extremely high rate of 52 per cent, compared to nine per cent of the 8,273 recorded patients with Sars, which was centred on Asia, and earlier thought to be deadlier.
Little is known about the new pathogen, beyond the fact that it can be lethal by causing respiratory problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. It can be transmitted between humans, but unlike its cousin, the Sars virus, which sparked a scare a decade ago, it does not seem very contagious.
Even if it’s not so contagious, for any respiratory virus the mass gathering of pilgrims provides a perfect opportunity for it to first spread at the two holiest Muslim shrines in the cities of Mecca and Medina, and then travel around the globe at jet speed as pilgrims return home. We could have an epidemic on our hands the world will have to battle in years if this happens.
The 2012 Haj drew 3.1 million people – and this year’s event likewise occurs in October, as the northern hemisphere slides into the season for coughs and sneezes. Saudi authorities said the number of pilgrims this year would be slashed by a fifth, but this is only because of expansion work at Makkah’s Grand Mosque.
Myself and virologists alike, are casting a worried eye on this year’s Islamic Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia as virologists still struggle with the enigmatic, deadly virus known as MERS.
I wouldn’t go for Hajj this year with the news of MERS all over, and researchers still finding it hard to define some basics on the disease, but it’s a practice that dates back thousands of years.
UN World Health Organisation (WHO) head Margaret Chan sounded the alarm to ministers at the agency’s annual congress in May.
“We need to get the facts clear and get the appropriate advice to all your countries where your pilgrims want to go to Mecca. It is something quite urgent,” she said.
Experts point first and foremost to figuring out the basics of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.
Is it transmitted by contact – if a patient contaminates his home or workplace with droplets containing virus? Or is it done by breathing in virus from coughs and sneezes? What is the best treatment for it? What about a vaccine? Are there risks of viral mutation? And is there an animal host which acts as a reservoir for the virus?
There are so many questions scientists can’t answer yet about MERS, as they work tirelessly in the laboratory looking for answers. For a virus of this nature, is it wise for anyone to go to an endemic area?
WHO has urged nations to monitor respiratory infections, especially among patients returning from the Middle East, but has held off calling for travel restrictions as Hajj draws nearer.
“This is really a new phenomenon that we’re dealing with,” Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director general for health security, told the International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Geneva this week.
“We don’t know what the potential is yet, based on the information we have, for sustained human-to-human transmission. We don’t know what the full geographic extent of this virus is right now.”
Leading virologist Laurent Kaiser of the Geneva University Hospitals told AFP: “It’s really a balance between too much precaution and no precaution. At this time, we have to be worried, we have to be careful.”
With our health sector still struggling to meet world standards, it will be a grave mistake allowing a virus that still gives scientistists headache into our society.
No vaccines yet means any pilgrim at this year’s Hajj could be a victim.
Thousands of Nigerians go to Saudi Arabia every year for Umurah and Hajj, many will be there again this year, many enough to bring MERS back home. Many enough to give us a new disease to worry about.
As always, the Federal, States, and even the local Governments will be sponsoring hundreds of Nigerians for Hajj this year, sending them to a land where MERS lurk around around at the moment.
Nigeria should try to reduce the number of its citizens going for Hajj this year to the least number possible. There will always be Hajj-if you don’t go this year, nothing stops you from going next year. Let’s try our best to avoid MERS.
Go to Hajj if you must go, but don’t bring back MERS; Nigeria can’t deal with it!