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Pilgrims undeterred by MERS…pour into Saudi God will protect

MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia, June 6, (Agencies): Muslim pilgrims from around the world are pouring into the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia, undeterred by the spread of the MERS virus which has killed 284 people in the kingdom. The faithful who dream of visiting Islam’s holiest shrines in Makkah and Medina travel to western Saudi Arabia to perform the lesser umrah pilgrimage throughout the year. “We have received warnings by authorities in our country about MERS and were informed of the importance of taking precautions,” said 45- year-old Abdullah, a pilgrim from Malaysia. Wearing a mask, Abdullah said he applies disinfectants as he enters the crowded Grand Mosque in Makkah. “God will protect me,” he said. More pilgrims are expected to arrive with the approach of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which starts late in June, and sees hundreds of thousands descend on Makkah for umrah.

But numbers will rocket when the faithful arrive for the hajj pilgrimage, the largest annual religious gathering worldwide, which takes place this year in October. Local authorities in Makkah are distributing leaflets and brochures containing advice on hygiene and measures to minimise the risk of infection by the mysterious Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Tunisian pilgrim, Safia Bin Mohammed shrugged off the fears of MERS. “I am not afraid,” she said. “It was not easy to come here, so I couldn’t have postponed my pilgrimage,” said the 56-year-old woman, insisting she was “complying with the medical precautions.” In a preemptive measure to avoid a potential importation of the virus, which has reached more than a dozen countries and as far afield as the United States, Tunisian authorities are advising their nationals to postpone their plans for pilgrimage this year. The cases outside the Middle East relate to people who became ill while in the region, with some involving pilgrims travelling to Makkah.

Last year, five million pilgrims visited the kingdom for umrah and hajj. This year, the number of umrah pilgrims has reached 4.8 million since the start of the lunar Muslim calendar in October, according to official statistics. Fears mounted in April when several cases of infection were registered in the western city of Jeddah after MERS had been largely confined to Eastern Province, where it first appeared in April 2012. The port city of Jeddah, which lies 80 kms (51 miles) north of Makkah, is the main entry point for pilgrims. But Saudi Arabia’s hajj ministry dedicated specifically to the annual pilgrimage has not yet taken any special measures related to MERS. MERS is considered a deadlier but less transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that appeared in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died. The coronavirus first appeared in Saudi Arabia in April 2012, and the kingdom remains the worst-hit country, accounting for the bulk of a global death toll. MERS has now killed 284 people out of 691 infected in Saudi Arabia since it first appeared.

The World Health Organisation has so far not advised special screening at points of entry, nor does it currently recommend any travel or trade restrictions, including for the pilgrimage. Meanwhile, lapses in hospital infection control measures exacerbated an outbreak of a deadly new viral disease which has infected more than 60 people and killed at least 10 in the United Arab Emirates, health investigators said on Friday. Reporting the findings of a five-day mission to the UAE, experts from the World Health Organisation said, however, that they found no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). “The recent upsurge of cases in Abu Dhabi appears to have been caused by a combination of factors, including a breach in infection prevention and control measures in health care settings, active surveillance and increase in community acquired cases,” they said in a statement. Reporting on the UAE’s handling of the problem, the WHO praised authorities there, saying they had been “following up diligently” on MERS cases, including conducting repeated tests to check when cases have been cleared of the virus. “This data will make an important contribution to the risk assessment and to guide the health response internationally,” said Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO delegation. A six-strong team from the WHO and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network were invited by the UAE to investigate MERS after an upsurge in cases there in April. The team met experts from Health Authority Abu Dhabi, Dubai Health Authority and the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, and visited the hospital to which two-thirds of the country’s cases had been be traced, it said, without giving its name or location. “We are impressed by the amount of data and information generated during the investigation of MERS cases by UAE to help better understand MERS- CoV,”

Ben Embarek said. “This knowledge is of utmost importance to the rest of the world to better discover the source of the virus and the routes of transmissions from animals to humans.” The Geneva-based UN health agency urged UAE health authorities to continue investigating MERS, including the source of infection, and to share new information as it is available. “There is an ongoing need to share experiences and knowledge from all countries that have cases of MERS-CoV to better understand this emerging disease, including the role of animals in the spread of the MERS-CoV,” it said.

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