Saudi Arabia Moves to Control MERS-CoV Before Mecca Hajj Pilgrimage Season

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By Esther Tanquintic-Misa | June 6, 2013 11:43 AM EST

Medical authorities in Saudi Arabia are racing against the clock to implement measures to control the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) into a feared, potential pandemic in light of the forthcoming annual Mecca Hajj pilgrimage season on October 13-18.

Millions of Muslims around the world go to Makkah, Saudi Arabia, for their annual recurring pilgrimage or Hajj. Considered one of the five pillars of Islam, Muslims who are able-bodied and financially capable are required to make the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. The Hajj is the Muslim people's demonstration of solidarity as well as submission to Allah, their known god.

This year, Saudi Arabia expects around 2,000 Muslim pilgrims from Italy alone to go to Mecca, according to Foad Aodi, president of the association of foreign doctors in Italy (AMSI) and Comai, which represents the Arab world in Italy.

Worldwide, at least 3 million ethnically diverse Muslims converge in Mecca every year to observe the Hajj pilgrimage.

"The most worrying aspect is that we still haven't identified the means of contagion of the virus and we have serious fears about the next haj that will bring millions of Muslims from around the world to Mecca the most holy place in Islam in October," Mr Aodi said.

Victims from the new SARS-like virus have reached 30 worldwide, where 24 of those deaths came from Saudi Arabia.

Another 39 new cases have been confirmed while another 1,300 suspected cases are being monitored.

However, Mr Aodi fears a potential spread could start as early as August, which marks the end of Eid-al-Fitr or the end of Ramadan, a holiday to mark the end of the Islamic month of Ramadan when Muslims fast during the hours of daylight. During this time, Muslims hold a feast including slaughtering an animal that is shared among the poorest families in the Arab world.

The Mecca Hajj pilgrimage season would be a perfect breeding ground for the infectious and deadly MERS-CoV to further spread since the Muslim people will converge in tight spaces over a span of several weeks. And when they return home, they also bring with them any potential virus they contracted.

Authorities recommend getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and the seasonal flu before traveling to Saudi Arabia. They also urged people to observe standard hygiene practices like washing hands, sneezing into a tissue or sleeve, and avoiding sick people.

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