Published On:02 June 2013
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Haj pilgrims warned of SARS-like virus

By Amy Corderoy

Doctors fear Muslims could be at risk of catching a potentially deadly virus if they take part in the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Australian researchers will undertake a world-first trial giving Haj pilgrims face masks to help prevent the spread of disease during the religious event, which attracts millions of people from around the world and this year falls in October.

Saudi Arabia is the centre of an outbreak of a deadly new virus that is similar to the SARS virus that killed hundreds of people world-wide in the early 2000s and infected thousands more.

So far 43 people have been infected with the new ''novel coronovirus'' and 21 have died, according to the latest update from the World Health Organisation.

The vast majority of people who have been infected are family members of those who have the virus, although recently two healthcare workers were also infected.

The head of the clinical research team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Professor Robert Booy, said experts were concerned about the high death rates, and the potential it could mutate.

''The people who are getting the virus at the moment are dying of pneumonia, and one in two of them are dying,'' he said. ''The more infections we get … the more likely it is the virus will mutate into a form that's adapted to humans.''

In October, he will conduct a study involving pilgrims from at least half a dozen countries, testing whether face masks would help prevent them from getting sick.

Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish has said the country was having trouble tackling the virus because foreign drug patents were preventing researchers from investigating it.

World Health Organisation chief Margaret Chan said this was unacceptable. ''No IP [intellectual property] should stand in the way of you, the countries of the world, to protect your people.''

Harunor Rashid, a clinical research epidemiologist at the NCIRS, made the pilgrimage a decade ago. ''Because of intense crowding, shared accommodation and inadequate hygiene, respiratory viruses circulate very easily at Haj.''

Professor Charles Watson from the faculty of health sciences at Curtin University said it was possible the virus could fizzle out before the Haj, if it was not strongly contagious. ''If the epidemic was still continuing I think we would strongly advise Australian Muslims who have travelled there to have a medical check on their return,'' he said.

(Courtesy: The Age)

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