MERS-CoV and the Hajj and Umrah Pilgrimages

The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is expected to draw about 3 million pilgrims when it occurs in the 3rd week of October. In addition, the Umrah pilgrimage, which can occur at any time of the year, often draws the largest number of pilgrims the days before, during and after the Hajj and during the last 10 days of Ramadan which begins on July 9th.

There in an increased risk of several infectious diseases, such as meningitis, hepatitis, and typhoid fever, during mass crowd events, such as these pilgrimages. This year, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) has attracted a lot of attention. Even though Saudi Arabia has reported the most cases and deaths due to this virus, the overall risk of acquiring MERS-CoV in Saudi Arabia is very low.

At this time, the World Health Organization does not recommend any travel restrictions to Saudi Arabia, and there is no need to change travel plans for Hajj or Umrah because of MERS. However, since the origin of the virus remains unknown at present, and since it is a respiratory virus, there are several simple measures that can reduce the risk:

  • Wash hands often and avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth. These are probably the best preventive measures.
  • Adhere to food safety rules such as avoiding unsafe water, undercooked meats, raw fruits and vegetables (unless you can peel them).
  • Avoid close contact with live farm or wild animals.
  • Avoid contact with sick people who have respiratory sickness.
  • If you do develop a fever and cough or shortness of breath while travelling in the Middle East or within 14 days after returning to your home country, visit a health care professional and be sure to tell them about your trip.