• 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
Pigs gassed to death from own excrement
Pigs at operation in question that animal group alleges shows mistreatment. Photo: VgT

Pigs gassed to death from own excrement

A total of 135 pigs died from gas produced from their own excrement on a farm in the canton of Aargau, a TV report has revealed. READ  

Med migrant death toll 'rises above 2,000'

More than 2,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe this year, data released in Geneva showed on Tuesday, bearing testimony to migrants' increasingly desperate attempts to reach the continent. READ  

Bid to move Picasso art to Switzerland foiled
Photo: AFP

Bid to move Picasso art to Switzerland foiled

French authorities say they have prevented a Picasso painting worth €25 million ($27.4 million) and considered a cultural treasure by Spanish authorities from being exported to Switzerland. READ  

Customs nabs suitcases of ivory at Zurich airport
Photo: Federal Customs Administration

Customs nabs suitcases of ivory at Zurich airport

A large haul of ivory, worth more than $400,000 on the black market, was seized at Zurich airport last month on its way from Tanzania to China, the Federal Customs Administration said on Tuesday. READ  

Mia and Noah top Swiss list for names of newborn
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Mia and Noah top Swiss list for names of newborn

Mia and Noah remained the most popular names for newborn children in Switzerland last year, according to a report issued from Bern on Tuesday. READ  

Expat's time in Zurich inspires racy novel
From the book cover of Hausfrau (detail). The author tells The Local how her Swiss experience inspired the much talked about novel. Photo: Penguin Randon House

Expat's time in Zurich inspires racy novel

Zurich’s high standard of living makes it a popular destination for expats, but linguistic and cultural hurdles can make for a lonely and alienating existence for trailing spouses, as depicted in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s erotically-charged novel Hausfrau. READ  

Fire risk prompts recall of e-bike batteries
Photo: KTM Bike Industries

Fire risk prompts recall of e-bike batteries

The Swiss federal roads office (Astra) has announced the recall of electric bike batteries because of a risk that they can catch fire. READ  

Falling tree kills cyclist in Lucerne forest tragedy
Photo: Lucerne cantonal police

Falling tree kills cyclist in Lucerne forest tragedy

A 26-year-old man was killed after being struck by a falling tree while cycling in a wooded area of the canton of Lucerne, police said on Monday. READ  

Ex-UBS trader jailed in UK for Libor rigging
Former UBS trader Tom Hayes. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

Ex-UBS trader jailed in UK for Libor rigging

A trader who worked for UBS and Citigroup on Monday became the first person to be convicted in Britain of rigging the Libor inter-bank lending rate. READ  

Huge blaze breaks out in Thurgau warehouse
Photo: TVO Online

Huge blaze breaks out in Thurgau warehouse

More than 100 firefighters tackled a fire at a storage depot in Horn, in the canton of Thurgau, on Monday morning. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Features
Expat American author's time in Zurich inspires racy bestseller
National
10 amazing places to be on Swiss National Day
National
Swiss army pilfers French water to give to thirsty cows
Sponsored Article
Outsourcing drives Apreel's Europe growth
National
The Expat Guide: Moving to Switzerland
National
Swiss army airlifts water to thirsty cows
International
Canary Islands: diver killed in collision with Swiss windsurfer
National
VIDEO: Seagull steals camera for amazing bird's eye selfie
Switzerland celebrates first ascent of Matterhorn
Politics
Immigrant recruits may not be loyal: Army chief
Solar Impulse 2 round-the-world flight halted for repairs
Society
Teenager gets high on vegetarian meal at Zurich club
Sponsored Article
Crans-Montana: International expat hub
Sponsored Article
Geneva's revolutionary marketing education
National
Greece seeks tax revenues from assets 'hidden' in Swiss banks
Culture
Paris police arrest Swiss artist for naked Eiffel Tower selfies
National
Scientists uncover largest Swiss dinosaur skeleton ever found
National
National weather office extends danger alerts as heatwave takes hold
National
Most severe heatwave in Switzerland since 2003 on the way
Travel
Bogglingly expensive Geneva club sandwiches remain 'priciest in world'
Politics
Anti-immigration nationalist party remains most popular: poll
National
Greek finance minister slams Swiss over lack of tax evasion info
Business & Money
Insects proposed for sale in Swiss supermarkets next year
National
'Oh God — I'm coming': noisy lovers' complaint goes public
National
Canton of Ticino threatens closing Italy border to asylum seekers
National
Just in case: Swiss National Bank prepares for Grexit 'crisis'
National
Russian crisis fuelled by sanctions threaten 40,000 Swiss jobs: study
National
Art Basel: Art for art's sake — or to make an investment?
National
New survey ranks Zurich Europe's priciest city for expatriates
National
Quarter of residents in Switzerland 'have multiple homes'
Features
Veggie lovers and 'flexitarians' challenge Swiss meat-eating habits
National
Forest officials struggle to save Switzerland's dying ash trees
Education
Historian finds ancient Egyptian papyrus texts in Basel uni library
National
Seven large Swiss employers back 'flexible work' charter
National
Basel police rescue of ducks forces closure of A2 motorway
National
Mother and daughter die as rain storms lash central Switzerland
Sport
'Stan the man' Wawrinka: French Open triumph 'completely crazy'
Culture
Expat's Zurich 'then and now' video shows how little the city has changed
National
Phoney Geneva police officers rob tourists and UN staff
Sport
Blatter's abrupt resignation seen as a 'stunning capitulation'
Features
Cleanup crews head to ski resorts to keep Swiss mountains tidy
Culture
Interlaken museum showcases works by Picasso using Caran d'Ache pencils
National
Low interest rates give tenants right to seek rent reductions in Switzerland
Sport
Switzerland's Blatter fends off critics to win fifth term as Fifa president
National
Agricultural researchers discover why Swiss cheese has holes
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

4,264
jobs available