MERS Coronavirus Scare Prompts Saudi Arabia To Block Pilgrimage
July 14, 2013

MERS Coronavirus Scare Prompts Saudi Arabia To Block Pilgrimage

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

As millions of Muslims from all over the globe prepare to visit Mecca this October as part of the Hajj, Saudi Arabian health officials have said they'll deny visas to those elderly pilgrims or those with existing chronic conditions to protect them against the MERS-Coronavirus. Additionally, these health officials have asked those who do attend to don masks to prevent the potential spread of this virus.

The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was first reported in September 2012 and has since killed 38 people in Saudi Arabia, including others in the UK, France, Italy, Germany and Tunisia. The World Health Organization (WHO) met with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) last month to discuss the outbreak and discover ways to control it. According to the WHO, MERS has the potential to become a global pandemic.

This warning for all Hajj pilgrims to wear masks is but one attempt to keep the coronavirus from spreading. In addition to wearing masks, KSA health officials are asking pilgrims to practice basic personal hygiene such as using tissues when coughing or sneezing and getting the appropriate vaccines before traveling to Mecca. Those visitors who are elderly or have chronic health conditions such as heart, kidney, respiratory diseases and diabetes will not be granted a visa to perform their pilgrimage, reports AFP. Furthermore, infants, pregnant women and those with immunity deficiency also face preventative measures. Though the Hajj pilgrimage will not take place until later this year, hundreds of thousands are already visiting Mecca as a part of Ramadan and Umrah.

According to the WHO, there have been a total of 81 MERS infections resulting in 45 deaths since it was first discovered last fall. The latest case was confirmed to the WHO on July 11.

The WHO gathered last week to discuss the disease, which is a distant relative of another respiratory disease, SARS. During these meetings the KSA and WHO noted three main epidemiological patterns in the spread of MERS.

In the first pattern addressed by the WHO, MERS is spread sporadically. Though experts are unsure how the disease spreads in this way, they've seen infections occur in communities around the Middle East.

In the second pattern discussed by the WHO, MERS is being transferred from family member to family member. They also noted, however, these sorts of transmissions only occur when one family member comes in very close contact with their infected loved one.

Finally, the WHO described a third pattern in which MERS is transferred. The infections which occurred in France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia occurred in health care facilities. Just as it's been seen in the familial pattern, doctors and nurses who come into close contact with an infected patient contract the disease and can spread it to others.

The WHO said last week there is currently no evidence MERS can be spread in the air, noting the only transmissions occur when there is close contact. Though the virus isn't airborne like the cold or flu viruses, the WHO is concerned MERS could be easily spread by close contact, especially during the Hajj pilgrimage where millions of Muslims pack around the Kaaba to carry out one of the requirements of the Five Pillars of Islam. As Islam is a global religion, these pilgrims will come from all over the world and, should they become infected in Mecca, could carry MERS to countries all around the world.