Jeddah: Fears of an outbreak of the deadly Mers virus in Saudi Arabia and construction in the holy city of Makkah have forced cuts in the numbers of pilgrims permitted to perform this year’s haj.
Millions of Muslims during the annual pilgrimage head to Makkah and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites, providing a possible means for Mers to spread around the globe as pilgrims who may become infected return to their home countries.
Fearful of such a scenario, the authorities have reduced by half the number of pilgrims coming from within Saudi Arabia, and by about 20 per cent those from abroad.
“This is an exceptional and temporary decision,” Haj Minister Bandar Hajjar announced last month.
Mers coronavirus which can lead to acute pneumonis and renal failure, claimed its first victim in Saudi Arabia in June 2012.
Saudi Arabia, which has already recorded 69 Mers cases, 38 of them fatal, has urged the elderly and chronically ill, as well as children and pregnant women, not to perform the annual haj that falls this year in October.
But the health ministry so far has not taken any special measures at airports to detect visitors who may be infected, deputy health minister Ziad Memish told AFP.
“We have not taken any precautionary measures at airports since the World Health Organisation has not recommended them,” he said.
WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the organisation would issue general guidelines aimed at minimising the risk of infections spreading.
“We do recognise that this is a risk for travellers and that there are certain steps that individual travellers and countries can take, for example for people who have serious medical conditions,” Fukuda told reporters.
In a statement on Thursday, the WHO also urged countries with pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia to raise awareness of the threat.
“It is important for countries to use all practical and effective means possible to communicate information on a range of issues before, during and after umrah and haj to all key groups,” the agency said.
So far no outbreaks of the virus have been reported in Makkah where millions of Muslim faithful have for months been performing the minor pilgrimage umrah that takes place all year round.
“Their numbers have reached five million since the beginning of the umrah season” 10 months ago, Makkah governor Prince Khaled Al Faisal said on Sunday.
“There are currently 400,000 pilgrims” in the kingdom’s holiest shrines Makkah and Medina, Faisal added.
Aside from the virus fears, Saudi authorities have also cited construction work to expand the Grand Mosque in Makkah as reason to keep down the number of pilgrims being allowed to perform this year’s haj.
Hajjar said the expansion work would increase the area of the mosque by 400,000 square metres, raising its capacity to accommodate 2.2 million people at the same time.