The Hajj and MERS coronavirus — not gone yet!

The Hajj pilgrimage is fast approaching next month in October (approximately 13th through 18th). This event is the largest gathering of people in the world every year. Millions of pilgrims gather in Saudi Arabia for this event. But this year there are concerns because the newly discovered virus that is causing a severe form of highly lethal pneumonia keeps popping up in various places around the country. This virus has been called the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-coronavirus.

Since this virus was discovered last year, there have been 96 cases of this illness identified in Saudi Arabia, and 47 of these have died. There has only been very limited spread from ill persons to very close contacts, such as people caring for a family member with the disease or a few health care workers in hospital settings. Nevertheless, with so many people coming to Saudi Arabia, there is some concern that some pilgrims will get this infection and carry it back to their home countries. While the actual risk is pretty small, no one wants to get this illness and kick off a global spread of this virus.

If you are a pilgrim, what can you do to minimize the chances that you will become infected or be a carrier of this virus? Authorities recommend: 1) very frequent hand washing; 2) covering your mouth with your sleeve if coughing or sneezing; 3) not touching your mouth, nose, or eyes; and 4) avoiding contact with sick people. If your are pregnant or have an underlying medical condition, such as heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes or chronic respiratory illness, you should not go this year.