Saudis question Mecca preparedness as MERS spreads


MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) â?? Officials in Saudi Arabia
are raising alarm that the kingdom is not doing enough to prevent Mecca
from becoming a route for exporting an often deadly respiratory virus as
millions of Muslims from around the world converge on the city to
perform pilgrimage at Islam’s holiest site.
The calls have taken
on greater urgency as Saudi Arabia struggles to contain a surge in
infections from the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. The
country has seen the most infections worldwide by far â?? more than 500
since 2012 â?? and in past weeks the numbers have accelerated with
several deaths reported nearly every day and new infections often
numbering in the double digits.
So far Mecca, near the western Red
Sea coast, has seen fewer cases than other parts of Saudi Arabia. Since
the coronavirus was first discovered in 2012, there have been two
annual hajj pilgrimages to the city, and neither saw instances of
pilgrims being infected. Most of the cases that have appeared outside
Saudi Arabia, including two in the United States, have been from
foreigners returning home from work in the kingdom or from Saudis
traveling abroad.
But as the number of cases rises in the kingdom,
the concern is that there are not enough precautions being taken in
Mecca, an obvious potential hotspot for spreading the disease.
say the Saudi Health Ministry needs to move faster to create more
public awareness, promote more aggressive testing in hospitals and take
better precautions among medical staff â?? who have made up a
significant proportion of those infected because of improper conditions.
sees a constant stream of pilgrims throughout the year from around the
world, and their numbers swell during the holy month of Ramadan, which
begins in late June. The hajj pilgrimage â?? which Islam says is a duty
of all able-bodied Muslims to perform once in their lives
â?? brings
even more gigantic crowds: Some 2 million pilgrims from all over the
world, packed into the close quarters as they visit the Kaaba, Islam’s
holiest site, and other locations in and around Mecca for a period of
around five days. This year, hajj starts in early October.
most of the international pilgrims travel to Mecca through the closest
international airport, in the coastal city of Jiddah, which has seen far
more cases.
Notably, no posters warning of the virus or giving
visitors information on how to prevent its spread were visible during a
recent visit by an Associated Press reporter through Jiddah airport or
at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba.
Hajj Ministry’s website, which many international pilgrims refer to for
information, makes no mention of MERS or special precautions. The
Health Ministry’s website, however, advises people over 65, children
under 12 and those who are ill to delay their pilgrimage.
is a location for people from all over the world with all kinds of
problems that could be spread all over," said Adnan al-Bar, a member of
Saudi Arabia’s top consultative body, the Shura Council, at a recent
summit in Jiddah on development in the holy city.
Since the
beginning of April, Mecca has seen 21 new confirmed cases â?? including
one Turkish pilgrim â?? and four deaths. Over the same time period,
there have been 114 new infections in Jiddah and 23 deaths. Asia saw its
first MERS death last month, when a Malaysian man who went on
pilgrimage to Mecca and passed through Jiddah in March returned home and
was found to have been infected.
King Abdullah last month
replaced the health minister in a sign of displeasure over efforts to
control the virus’ spread. The new minister, Adel Faqih, visited health
workers in Jiddah on Wednesday and told them the coronavirus was
spreading in part because hospitals are not taking anti-infection
Only one medical facility in Mecca â?? the King Abdullah
Medical City â?? is equipped to handle MERS cases, according to Ismail
Mohammed, the director-general of another hospital in the city, Umm Al
"Mecca is almost considered to be free" of the virus, he
told AP. But he warned steps have to be taken to ensure it remains so.
Government policies have largely only been reactive; greater patient
education is needed; and there is still no "overall orientation (of
anti-MERS policy) toward the pilgrims."
Preparations, he said, are only on "an ad hoc basis."
who served for years as Mecca’s general health director, said the
Health Ministry should be overhauled to become less bureaucratic and
that Mecca’s medical infrastructure needs a rapid transformation.
Already, it does not have enough facilities to provide primary care for
"The current health care system in the Mecca does not cover half of the needed services," he
MERS is not highly contagious â?? person-to-person spread has been seen
only in close contacts, like family members or health care workers who
care for an infected person.
The World Health Organization said
Wednesday the virus does not yet constitute a global health emergency.
Worldwide, WHO has confirmations of at least 572 cases, including 173
deaths. The vast majority has been in Saudi Arabia â?? 160 dead and 514
confirmed cases since 2012, according to government figures.
often starts with flu-like symptoms but can lead to pneumonia, breathing
problems and in severe cases, kidney failure and death. Scientists are
unsure exactly how people are catching MERS but suspect the disease is
linked to camels.
Pilgrims are largely undaunted.
Abdel-Mofty, a 61 year-old Egyptian pilgrim, wore a blue surgical mask
around the Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure
draped in black cloth.
It is her first time to visit Mecca and she
wanted to be careful, but she says the chance to pray at the base of
the Kaaba supersedes any concerns about the virus.
"Is there anything more beautiful after this?" she said. "I hope to come every year."

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