umm Abdillah, Radio Islam Programming | 2015.08.31 | 15 Dhul Qa'da 1436
Saudi Arabia has proposed a ban on sacrificing camels as part of Hajj rituals this year. This comes amidst a rising death toll and prevention of the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) among pilgrims. In 2013 travel advisories forced roughly a million pilgrims to forgo the trip to Makkah due to MERS. Some experts believe these precautions are overhyped. Firstly, this isn't the first time there's been a rapid upturn in cases in the Arabian Peninsula just before the Hajj. Secondly, they believe there's no reason to believe the virus has mutated to become any more contagious than before. Thirdly, there have been no outbreaks during the equally heavy umrah (lesser pilgrimage) seasons.
Typically, every Hajj pilgrim will perform a ritualistic slaughter of a sheep or a share in a camel or cattle during the Hajj. The meat is cooked and shared, or canned for later consumption. MERS, also known as camel flu, is a viral respiratory infection caused by the MERS-coronavirus. Camels are thought to harbour the virus. MERS is considered a deadlier but less infectious relative of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that appeared in Asia in 2003 and killed hundreds of people, mostly in China.
More than 500 people have died in Saudi Arabia since the virus first appeared in 2012. The number of MERS infections has also surged to 1171 cases, according to the Saudi health ministry website. A surge in infections forced health authorities to shut the emergency room at a main hospital in Riyadh last week after at least 46 people, including medical staff, contracted MERS. Symptoms range from mild to severe. They include fever, cough, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and kidney failure. The disease is more severe in those with other health problems. From a fever, cough, chills, sore throat, and muscle pain within the first week, the disease can quickly develop into pneumonia - requiring ventilation and organ support. Up to 40 percent of the time, MERS infections result in death — specifically from high fevers and pneumonia.
Don’t kiss your camel
The World Health Organisation has advised avoiding contact with camels and to eat only fully cooked camel meat, pasteurised camel milk, and to avoid drinking camel urine. Camel urine is considered a medicine for various illnesses in the Middle East. The Saudi Ministry of Agriculture has advised people to avoid contact with camels or wear breathing masks when around them. In response, some people have refused to listen to the government's advice and still kiss their camels in defiance of their government's advice.
Egypt’s Health Ministry is so concerned about MERS that it urged the would-be-pilgrim to delay their journey to the holy lands this year. The ministry has also urged people less than 15 years old, elders, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases to postpone the ritual.
Out of proportion
The following 26 countries have thus far reported cases of MERS:
In 2012: Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom;
In 2013: France, Germany, Italy, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom;
In 2014: Algeria, Austria, Egypt Greece Iran Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States, Yemen.
To date in 2015: China, Germany, Iran, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
Some experts however believe the concerns about an outbreak are being blown out of proportion. They base their conclusions on the South Korea Outbreak where the virus has never been shown to spread for any sustained period of time outside of health-care facilities. At the moment it mainly spreads in hospitals, where poor ventilation and the lack of spatial separation in hospital wards expose patients to large amounts of the virus.
They further cite the World Heath Organisation is saying that there is no evidence to suggest sustained human-to-human transmission in communities and there is no evidence of airborne transmission. Researchers still don't understand many of the basics about the virus. They don't know precisely how it spreads. They haven't identified its natural animal host. Though they suspect bats and camels carry the virus, the exact mode of animal-to-human transmission still isn't clear, meaning it could simply be exposure to an infected animal or something like drinking camel milk. They also don't exactly know how long people remain infectious, how severe MERS is, and how best to manage people who are sick.
Pilgrims are thus advised general health precautions: washing hands often with soap and water, even when hands are not visibly dirty; adhering to food safety practices, such as avoiding undercooked meat or food prepared under unsanitary conditions, and properly washing fruit and vegetables (with bottled water) before eating them. Also, wearing a breathable face-mask in crowded areas or confined spaces for long durations.