Egypt may ban Hajj pilgrims to Saudi due to MERS outbreak

Published May 8th, 2014 - 06:25 GMT

Egypt is likely to place a temporary ban on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, a former health minister said, as concerns mount over the spread of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus.

MERS, which causes a respiratory disease, has claimed the lives of more than a hundred people in Saudi Arabia since it emerged in 2012. There have been a number of reported cases in other countries, with the first case detected in Egypt in April of this year.

Saudi Arabia said four people died on Wednesday, driving the death toll in the kingdom to 121 since the disease emerged in 2012.  Rates of infection have surged in recent weeks after fresh outbreaks associated with hospitals in Jeddah and Riyadh. The total number of infections identified in the country so far is 449, the Saudi health ministry said in a statement on its website.

Egypt's health ministry has already warned that elderly people, children, and those suffering from chronic heart and chest diseases should avoid traveling to Saudi Arabia as the number of deaths continues to rise.

But former health minister Mohammed Awad Tag El-Din, who is also a member of the ministry's special team working on MERS and other influenza-linked viruses, said Egypt might resort to barring pilgrims from traveling to the kingdom altogether if the "epidemic status of the virus and its development" worsened. His remarks were reported on Wednesday by independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

International concerns have grown as the kingdom is expected to receive a huge influx of pilgrims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in July, and millions more in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in October.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, also on Wednesday, it did not "recommend the application of any travel or trade restrictions, including for upcoming pilgrimage travel to Saudi Arabia." The statement came as a team of WHO experts concluded a five-day mission to Saudi Arabia to help assess the recent upsurge in cases.

"Yes we are not in the event of an epidemic, but caution, anxiety and observation must be exercised to combat the speared of the virus," Tag El-Din said.

The Egyptian official advised following infection prevention and control measures that, he says, include steering clear of suffers and wearing surgical masks in public.

Fifty percent of infections with the virus, for which there is no vaccine or anti-viral treatment, are fatal, he said, adding that new vaccines take 6-9 months to be developed.

The 27-year-old man who contracted the virus,  who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia, is now "in a stable condition" in a Cairo hospital, according to officials.

The virus has spread to several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Tunisia, as well as the United States and several countries in Europe.

By Ayat Al-Tawy

© Copyright Al-Ahram Publishing House

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