Friday, November 20, 2009

H1N1 and the 2009 Hajj

The Ministry of Health of Saudi Arabia has recently issued a set of health requirements and recommendations for entry visas for Saudi Arabia for the Hajj and Umra season, with special focus on reducing the transmission of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza among pilgrims.

These health requirements and recommendations call for those population groups who are considered to be at high risk for complications from influenza to refrain voluntarily from this year’s Hajj. The requirements issued by the Kingdom also request the health authorities in pilgrims’ countries of origin to educate and advise pilgrims on basic public health measures (personal hygiene measures, cough etiquette, use of antiseptic hand gel, etc.) to be followed during Hajj and Umra to prevent the spread of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 during the upcoming Hajj season.

There are some concerns about transmission in the Middle Eastern region because despite the preferred WHO/CDC nomenclature of 'influenza pandemic (H1N1) 2009 virus', the misleading name 'swine flu' is used more often than not. Joining the Arabic word for swine (transliterated 'alkhanaazeer') leaves an impression in a subset of the population that, there being no local swine population, the risk of transmission to animals is nil.

By some estimates, the Hajj is the single largest, annual gathering in the world; the pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca attracts between 2 and 3 million visitors from all over the globe. In Saudi Arabia, health officers have been stationed at all points of entry, and some airports have even been equipped with heat sensors to detect people with high fevers. Officials have also recommended that travelers get vaccinated, but not all countries are going to be able to inoculate all pilgrims before they leave for Mecca. With low vaccine supplies globally, it's a problem that is likely to be repeated at other world events.

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