Swine flu panic hits the Hajj

Islamic Games to be postponed, Iranians barred from Ramadan pilgrimage, Saudi mandates vaccination for Hajj.

swine flu test kit 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
swine flu test kit 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Swine flu is sinking its teeth into the Middle Eastern psyche, with officials issuing edicts and taking measures that would previously be unheard of - at least not since the days of the Black Plague. As the death toll rises and thousands more are infected, Middle Eastern health officials are issuing statements urging caution against activities that might encourage exposure to swine flu. Iran has barred its citizens from attending pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and many other Muslim countries' ministries of health are considering doing the same. In May, when concerns were raised over swine flu and the feasibility of the Hajj, bloggers and officials were dismissive of its potential affect, guessing that the flu would join the ranks of 2005's bird flu or SARS, both viruses that were fatal to many and incited worldwide panic yet ultimately amounted to not even a fraction of the damage that had been feared. "This is getting stranger and stranger," Michael Collins Dunn wrote in a May 13 post in the Middle East Institute Editor's Blog. "The Grand Mufti of Egypt is suggesting Muslim scholars issue a collective fatwa [religious edict] to postpone the hajj due to swine flu …Am I missing something here?" "Has the hajj ever been postponed for health reasons, in all of Islamic history?" Dunn continued. "I don't know, but I expect you'd need at least one infected person to justify it. (Not only are there no cases in the Middle East, except Israel, but none in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan - well, anywhere Muslim.)" In response to global panic over avian flu, Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott said in a November 2005 press conference, "The world is, we think, overdue for a new pandemic and it's quite likely that the next pandemic will be a serious one." It turns out Abbott was right, albeit not about bird flu. As of July 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) had reported a total of 1,154 deaths from the swine flu worldwide, and 162,380 infected. The numbers, says WHO, are most likely lower than the actual figure of deaths and infections, as many countries do not have the adequate facilities or available medical professionals to make the proper diagnoses. Middle Eastern nations are starting to pay attention. On Wednesday, Iran officially barred pilgrims from attending Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan to avoid swine flu contamination. The holy month, lasting from August 22 to September 19 this year, is when many Muslims make the Umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, to Mecca. "We will have no pilgrims in Saudi Arabia during the month of Ramadan," the ISNA news agency quoted Iranian Health Minister Mohammad Bagher Lankarani as saying. There have been over 130 cases of swine flu reported by the Iranian Ministry of Health so far, with a majority of those infected being pilgrims who had recently been to Saudi Arabia. Iran is taking significant precautions against a more widespread outbreak in the country, as the health ministry also announced this week that the Islamic Solidarity Games, previously slated to occur in October, would be postponed. Although a new date for the games was not mentioned, Lankarani said they would most likely be planned for after the fall flu season. Swine flu is highly contagious and easily transmitted in mass crowds. "Swine flu spreads from person-to-person by direct contact," Amos Panet, Professor at the Hebrew University's Institute of Microbiology and swine flu expert, told The Media Line. "Through breathing, the aerosols that we all produce form our mouths while we speak, and by getting in contact - either directly or indirectly." "The virus can spread in closed places - like a room, or an airplane, or any place a virus can stay alive," Panet added. The Middle East's scorching temperatures may be the population's saving grace in avoiding massive swine flu contamination. "The virus is very sensitive to heat and dryness, so it needs moderate temperatures," explained Panet. Despite the H1N1 virus being highly contagious, experts are skeptical of the efficacy of governments' preemptively canceling planned events such as the Islamic Solidarity Games. "I don't think it's realistic, because the danger doesn't justify the disruption of normal life," Panet said. "If it's something that can be easily cancelled, perhaps, but if it's something that's well arranged or well-planned, I really don't think so." With the Hajj approaching in November, Saudis are taking every precaution to quell the swine flu panic before pilgrims start pouring into Mecca. Saudi Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah announced Wednesday that not only would there be age restrictions placed on Hajj pilgrims, but all those wishing to obtain Hajj visas must show proof of vaccination. Pilgrims must be between the ages of 12 and 65, said the Minster, and will have to have certification that they do not have any chronic disease. Pregnant women, as well as those with diabetes, obesity and hypertension will be barred from Mecca. "These conditions have been approved after consultations with top international experts in the field," Khaled Al-Mirghalani, the Health Ministry's spokesman, said in a press conference. "No one will be able to get a visa without fulfilling these new rules." More than 600 people in Saudi Arabia have been diagnosed with the virus, and there have been six swine-flu related deaths. The H1N1 vaccination has already been produced and is currently being tested in clinical trails. Vaccines are expected to become available in October. Saudi health officials have reserved four million doses. Panet said that these vaccines will be a "great relief" to countries that have experienced deaths from swine flu. "We don't know yet in the field, clinically, that the vaccine will be efficacious," he said. "But we suppose, based on prior knowledge, that the vaccine will protect the majority of the population from the virus." "The manufacturing of the vaccine and its distribution will be critical in the fall when it comes."