New York Times Examines Efforts Underway To Prevent Spread Of H1N1 During Hajj

The New York Times examines how Saudi Arabia is preparing for the upcoming annual pilgrimage of some “2.5 million people from 160 countries” to Mecca, some who “will be bringing the swine flu. The Saudi authorities, fearing that the hajj could turn their holy city into a petri dish for viral mutations and a hub for spreading a new pandemic wave around the world, are working hard to head that off,” the newspaper writes.

“The hajj is a central ritual of Islam, and our country tries to make it easy for everyone to come,” said Ziad Memish, Saudi Arabia’s assistant deputy minister for preventive medicine. “We’ve said we won’t turn away anyone who arrives at our borders. But we are recommending to other countries whom they should let come.” The government has advised countries to bar pregnant women, children, people over 65 years, and those with chronic health conditions from the pilgrimage. Saudi officials have advised people participating in the hajj, who are living in countries with access to the H1N1 vaccine, to be vaccinated two weeks prior to their trip.

“The hajj offers many opportunities to a virus that spreads through the air and lingers on surfaces: Pilgrims crowded into planes, boats, buses and tent cities; the endless ranks of the faithful praying shoulder to shoulder and touching their hands to the floors around the Kaaba, to handrails as they run between the hills Safa and Marwah, or to cups of water from the Zamzam Well,” the newspaper writes.

The article examines the CDC’s role in advising the Saudi government on how to mitigate the spread of the virus and the history of disease outbreaks during religious pilgrimages, such as a meningitis outbreak in Mecca in 1994, and a flu outbreak during a gathering of 200,000 Catholics in Australia in 2008 (McNeil, 10/29).

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