• Switzerland's news in English
 

Muslim hajj pilgrimage in focus amid virus fears

Published: 30 Jun 2013 08:42 GMT+02:00

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 so, for any respiratory virus the mass gathering of the hajj provides a perfect opportunity 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.

The 2012 hajj 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.

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?

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 percent, compared to nine percent of the 8,273 recorded patients with SARS, which was centred on Asia.

But again, the tally of people who have fallen ill with MERS but not been diagnosed with it, or who may have been infected but not developed symptoms, is simply unknown.

As the fight for knowledge unfolds behind lab doors, the WHO is urging nations to monitor respiratory infections, especially among patients returning from the Middle East, but has held off calling for travel restrictions.

"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."

While MERS centres on Saudi Arabia, there have been laboratory-confirmed cases originating in Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Tunisia have had cases who were either sent there for care or who fell ill after returning from the Middle East.

France, Italy, Tunisia and Britain have also seen limited transmission among patients who had not been to the Middle East but had close contact with people who had.

So far, MERS has essentially been found in nations with health services capable of tracing and tackling such diseases. But the hajj draws a broad spectrum of Muslims, including from poor countries which struggle to cope even with commonplace diseases.

"We don't know if the disease is there right now. They don't have surveillance," Saudi Arabia's deputy health minister, Ziad Memish, told AFP on the sidelines of the Geneva conference.

Health experts give praise to Saudi authorities for beefing up vigilance for infectious diseases over the years.

They also note that the hajj has successfully ridden out two previous viral episodes in the past decade -- SARS in 2003 and H1N1 influenza in 2009, although the difference now is that Saudi Arabia is the apparent hotbed of MERS.

Memish, who is also a medical professor and runs a WHO-accredited research centre on the medicine of mass gatherings, pointed to the success of lower-scale umrah pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia this year.

"I think it's comforting that as of today, four and a half million people have performed the umrah in Mecca and nothing has happened," Memish said. "But of course we're making all the arrangements and all the planning to do active surveillance, to be able to intervene."

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Talks on Iran's nuclear future head into overtime
TV crews set up outside Bea-Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne on Wednesday as talks continued. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Talks on Iran's nuclear future head into overtime

Russia and Iran claimed a breakthrough in Lausanne talks on a framework deal cutting back Tehran's nuclear programme, but the US denied everything had been agreed as discussions were due to resume Wednesday. READ  

Niklas sweeps through northern Switzerland
Tree blown down by storm halts train in Lower Saxony, Germany. Photo: DPA

Niklas sweeps through northern Switzerland

UPDATED: Vestiges of Hurricane Niklas swept through northern Switzerland and parts of the Alps on Tuesday, uprooting trees, damaging buildings, blowing down signs and causing the death of one motorist and at least a dozen injuries, according to media reports. READ  

Swiss Army revives bike infantry to boost fitness
Photo: Rasbak/Wikimedia Commons

Swiss Army revives bike infantry to boost fitness

Switzerland’s defence department has ordered the reinstatement of the bicycle infantry for the Swiss Army in a bid to improve fitness standards among soldiers. READ  

Timeline: Iran's 12-year nuclear standoff

World powers were grappling in Lausanne on Tuesday to agree by midnight to the outlines of a potentially historic deal with Iran to cut back its nuclear ambitions. READ  

Yemen Red Cross worker dies amid safety worries
Photo: The Local

Yemen Red Cross worker dies amid safety worries

The Geneva-based Red Cross said on Tuesday that one of its volunteers was killed in Yemen, adding that it could not fly in desperately-needed aid due to a lack of security. READ  

Lausanne talks aim to set Iran's nuclear future
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Lausanne talks aim to set Iran's nuclear future

Global powers were racing in Lausanne on Tuesday to reach the outlines of a deal to stop any Iranian bid to develop nuclear weapons. Here's a guide to what kind of agreement may be reached: READ  

Orange set to ditch name in rebranding exercise

Orange set to ditch name in rebranding exercise

Orange, Switzerland’s third-ranked telecom company, announced on Tuesday that it is changing its name under a rebranding exercise likely to cost tens of millions of francs as it scrambles to catch up to its competitors, market leader Swisscom and Sunrise. READ  

Zurich ranks first among Europe's 'sootfree cities'
Cycling is one of the alternative forms of transportation promoted in Zurich. Photo: City of Zurich

Zurich ranks first among Europe's 'sootfree cities'

The city of Zurich ranks first among 23 major European cities for its efforts to fight air pollution, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said on Tuesday. READ  

Weather in China slows Solar Impulse's progress
Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

Weather in China slows Solar Impulse's progress

Solar Impulse 2 landed early Tuesday in China, the world's biggest carbon emitter, as the Swiss aircraft completed the fifth leg of its landmark circumnavigation of the globe powered solely by the sun. READ  

US hits Ticino bank with $211-million penalty
Photo: BSI

US hits Ticino bank with $211-million penalty

Lugano-based bank BSI will pay a $211 million penalty after acknowledging it helped clients create sham identities to evade American taxes, the US Justice Department announced on Monday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Features
Mobility takes off as young urban Swiss catch the car-sharing bug
Features
Six steps for expats to get along better with the Swiss
Business & Money
Ethical Coffee Company aims to beat Nespresso in home market
National
Use of temporary staffing continues to rise in Switzerland
Sponsored Article
Need help with permits and registration in Switzerland?
National
Swiss foreign affairs minister touted as candidate for top UN job
National
One of Switzerland's most celebrated artists dies in Lucerne at 106
Business & Money
Swiss luxury brand Tag Heuer announces plans for smartwatch
National
Valais lights up 13 mountain peaks for 200th anniversary
Business & Money
Switzerland to avoid recession this year: Credit Suisse forecast
Business & Money
Europe's tallest hotel pitched for Swiss mountain village
National
Exlusive interview: surviving Swiss cousin remembers Anne Frank
National
New Credit Suisse chief executive 'offers hope for Africans'
Features
Top tips to help you find an apartment in Switzerland
Business & Money
American expat to make way for African as Credit Suisse CEO
National
Rising Swiss gender pay gap above European Union average
National
Political deal reached to enact Swiss holiday home restrictions
National
Optimism drives this year's Geneva International Motor show
National
Robust Swiss economy beats forecasts for 2014: government
Sport
Federer scores upset win against Djokovic for seventh Dubai title
National
Swiss train in collision near Zurich ignored stop signal: SBB
Technology
Switzerland best in world for per capita European patent filings
Education
New EPFL building to showcase art and science 'under one roof'
National
Same-sex marriage supported by most Swiss: opinion polls
National
New study finds Switzerland is world's best place to retire
National
Army official calls for Swiss women to undergo military training
National
New Swiss health campaign combats smoking as 'norm' for too many
Culture
Abba star Frida records song about first ascent of the Matterhorn
National
Swiss federal government unveils EU immigration quotas bill
Business & Money
HSBC Swiss private bank revelations 'tip of iceberg': whistleblower
Business & Money
FATCA: 'The age of financial privacy is over'
National
Phil Collins' paralyzed ex-wife files lawsuit after Swiss complications
Culture
Gauguin on display in Basel touted as 'most costly painting ever'
Business & Money
Swiss Leaks: HSBC Swiss private bank 'catered to terrorists and crooks'
International
What's keeping British expats in Europe from voting in UK elections?
Business & Money
Trade balance bulges as Switzerland smashes record for exports in 2015
National
Swiss town's ploy against workers living in Italy 'not racist'
National
Architects propose skyscrapers for new Geneva 'urban centre'
Culture
Renowned Israeli conductor dies during symphony in Lucerne
International
Population of Swiss citizens abroad continues to expand
National
Vaud property salesman jailed over costly gambling addiction
National
Right-wing group seeks citizens' vote for national face veil ban
Health
Swiss doctors 'worst' for leaving foreign objects in patients
Features
Anglophone expats in Switzerland mine creativity to earn crust
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

4,719
jobs available