WHO Prepares For Hajj, Rings MERS Alarms

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WHO Ring MERS Alarms As Hajj Looms
The hajj typically brings around 3 million travelers each year to Makkah, in Saudi Arabia.

CAIRO- As Muslims prepare for the world’s largest gathering in Makkah for hajj, a World Health Organization’s committee has urged all countries to undertake necessary procedures to monitor the virus and avoid its outbreak.

"We don't understand what kind of risk this poses for global spread," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security and environment, told Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, September 25.

Fukoda’s comments came during a meeting for WHO’s emergency committee on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV on Wednesday.

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After hearing updates on the spread of the virus, the committee decided against calling the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”: a situation that requires a certain level of immediate, coordinated international action.

Yet, the committee urged countries to step up their surveillance and improve their ability to diagnose the illness as pilgrims return to their homes from hajj later this fall.

The hajj typically brings around 3 million travelers each year to Makkah, in Saudi Arabia.

"Levels of surveillance are suboptimal in a number of countries that may be particularly at risk," Fukuda was quoted by the Los Angeles Times.

First recorded in Saudi Arabia in 2012, the deadly virus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been striking hardest in the kingdom.

The SARS-like virus can be lethal by causing respiratory problems, pneumonia, and kidney failure.

The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Yet, the count has ticked up steadily taking it to 77, the bulk of them in the kingdom.

Up to September 20, 58 MERS patients have died to date, an extremely high rate of 52%, compared to 9% of the 8,273 recorded patients with SARS, which was centered on Asia.

With millions of Muslims turning to Makkah and Madinah to perform hajj every year, fears were maximizing about providing the virus a perfect opportunity to spread across the world.

The 2012 hajj drew 3.1 million people -- and this year's event likewise occurs in October, as the northern hemisphere slides into the season for coughs and sneezes.


WHO experts have accused some countries of withholding detailed information and updates about the deadly virus, hindering their efforts to combat it.

“We would like to have more information on the situation,” Fukuda said.

“Usually I refrain from commenting on specific countries' behaviors or actions.

We've been in close contact with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we know that they've done extensive efforts both to investigate cases and get a better handle on how people are being infected,” he added.

The mysterious nature of the virus and its source was also tackled during the meeting, experts stated that they still don't understand how people contract the virus.

"We're still early in our understanding of how to put this together," Fukuda added.

The Recent studies suggest that camels and bats may be possible hosts of the virus.

A UN study in Saudi Arabia is expected to provide new information soon.

The WHO Secretariat will continue to provide regular updates to the Members, and the Committee is scheduled to convene in late November 2013 after hajj season.

Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.

Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.

Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.

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