• Switzerland's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Muslim hajj pilgrimage in focus amid virus fears

AFP · 30 Jun 2013, 08:42

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.

Story continues below…

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
Switzerland braces for heavy holiday traffic
Southbound traffic approaching the Gotthard Tunnel at 12.15pm on Wednesday. Photo: Gotthard north portal webcam

If you planning to head south by car this weekend, be prepared for long traffic jams, especially at the Gotthard Road Tunnel.

Zurich Zoo mourns death of Druk the elephant
Druk with baby elephant Omysha. Photo: Zurich Zoo

The 49-year-old, a gift from the King of Bhutan, arrived in Switzerland when she was just 15 months old.

Glencore cuts copper and zinc production as prices fall
Photo: AFP

Commodities giant Glencore said on Wednesday it had cut its copper and zinc production in the first quarter as it struggles to rein in an abundance of supply that has sent prices plummeting.

Swiss military hit by series of cyber attacks
An F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft of the Swiss Air Force releases flares. File photo: AFP

The Swiss defence department was the victim of a cyber attack in January, Switzerland's defence minister has confirmed.

Banking
UBS share price tumbles on lower profit result
Photo: AFP

UPDATED: Swiss banking giant UBS on Tuesday saw its share price plummet after jittery investors helped push its first quarter net profit down by nearly two thirds.

Swiss school eyes longer holidays for non-smoking staff
File photo: Flickr

Staff at a school in the canton of Basel Country who provide a positive role model by not smoking should receive an extra week's holiday, one member of staff has suggested.

Refugee crisis
'Switzerland must shut itself off with barbed wire'
A man walks with his son in the Moria detention centre on the Greek Island of Lesbos in April. Photo: AFP

Swiss politician Andreas Glarner isn't afraid of controversy.

Tennis: Injured Federer pulls out of Madrid Open
Federer said he injured his back in practice on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Back problems have caused Roger Federer to pull out of the tournament in the Spanish capital.

Swiss may extradite Kosovan war crimes suspects: report
Swiss president and justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga is studying the case. Photo: AFP

Swiss authorities have arrested two Kosovans wanted by Serbia for suspected war crimes, but the question of where to extradite them to is stirring up diplomatic tensions, Swiss media report.

MPs say yes to cash for Switzerland’s 'slave kids'
Victims of historic abuse during the handover of a petition as part of "Repair", a public initiative calling for justice for victims of abuse in Bern in 2014. Photo: AFP

For decades, Swiss children were taken from their homes and forced to work as cheap labour. Some were sexually abused or underwent forced sterilization.

Sponsored Article
How to launch your international career
Society
Swiss parliament snubs plan for two weeks paternity leave
Sponsored Article
What's the best way for expats to transfer money abroad?
File photo: Giovanni Blank
Lifestyle
Fathers should share parental leave, says commission
Photo: eGuide Travel
Society
Dictator-tracker spices up Geneva planespotting
Sponsored Article
Education abroad: How to find an international school
File photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Politics
Swiss army ready to act in worst case migrant scenario
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
Photo: Robert Zingg/Zurich Zoo
Lifestyle
Druk the elephant hauled to her feet by Zurich fire brigade
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Sport
Swiss champion snowboarder Estelle Balet killed by avalanche
Photo: Andreas Omvik/Zurich Tourism
Culture
Swiss 'groundhog day' forecasts lousy summer
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose International Health Insurance
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Technology
'Love-making couch' among inventions at Geneva show
Sponsored Article
Becoming an expat: where to start
Photo: Caroline Bishop
Society
Bank blacklists Swiss travel agent named Isis
Photo: Julien Gregario
National
Italian research student slain in Geneva street
Photo: Philippe Merle/AFP
Features
New Chaplin museum set in star's own 'Downton Abbey'
Photo: Gary Minnaert
Lifestyle
Name traditions still sway married Swiss women despite law change
Photo: Stephan Ridgway
Government eyes hefty fines for littering
Photo: Swiss Tourism
National
Revealed: the richest regions in Switzerland
Photo: Swiss National Bank
National
Switzerland's new 50 franc note: what you need to know
Photo: Caroline Bishop
Society
VIDEO: Swiss farmer's cows leap for joy of spring
Politics
Automatic expulsion of criminal foreigners rejected at the ballot box
National
UK's Duchess of York seeks to become resident of Verbier
National
City of Geneva to translate information into English
National
Female guard at prison near Zurich 'helped Syrian flee jail'
National
Swiss residential real estate 'bubble risk' continues to rise
4,607
jobs available