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Beware, Haj pilgrims: there's virus in the air

Thursday, 11 July 2013 - 10:22am IST | Agency: dna

Over 1.7 lakh Indian Haj pilgrims including over 20,000 from Maharashtra are at risk of getting affected by the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) which has so far consumed over 50 lives in the Middle East, most of them in Saudi Arabia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) called an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the issue. However, during the meeting it was realised that more information was required on certain aspects regarding the spread of MERS. So, the meeting has been rescheduled to July 17. So far, the WHO has not issued any advisory relating to special screening at the point of entry or put any travel restrictions. Nevertheless, it has asked health ministries to review current surveillance guidance.

“The Emergency Committee is composed of international experts from a variety of relevant disciplines and all regions of WHO,” said WHO director-general, Dr Margaret Chan in a statement. Health ministry officials did not respond to calls from dna.

India, with the second largest Muslim population in the world, has a quota of over 1.7 lakh devotees lining up to go to Saudi Arabia for Haj, the majority of who go through the Haj committee. According to an estimate, over 31 lakh pilgrims including those from Mumbai go to Saudi Arabia for Haj. According to experts, the congregation of such a large number of people  in one place could become a favourable environment for the spread of the epidemic, especially because the disease is known to spread through personal contact via sneezing, coughing, and handshake.

According to the WHO, since September 2012, more than 50 cases of MERS-CoV have been identified globally, most of which are from Saudi Arabia. Approximately half of the number of people have died. All cases identified so far have had either a direct or indirect connection with the Middle East.

The most common symptoms observed are fever, cough, and breathing difficulties while atypical symptoms such as diarrhoea have also been recorded in patients with immunosuppression. About 70 per cent of those dead are male.

The situation has also raised worries among devotees. Sajid Naqvi, an Andheri based devotee who is planning to go on Haj this year, said, “ From the news, it seems to be a cause for worry. Specially, since I’m travelling with my young children, who are more prone to such infections.”

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