Oct. 30–Fearing a massive outbreak of fever and germs, the World Health Organization and Saudi Arabia are asking people who are at higher risk for getting the H1N1 virus to stay home from one of the holiest rituals known to Muslims: the hajj to Mecca.
Published Thursday in the well-respected journal Science, the recommendation is that pregnant women, those with chronic illness, children under 12 and anyone older than 65 this year forgo from the hajj, which all Muslims are told to do at least once in their life.
It takes a week to complete; the “pilgrims” participate in many rituals, such as walking counterclockwise seven times around the “Ka’bah,” a building that shows the direction of prayer, and running between two hills.
It is considered the world’s largest and densest gathering of people in the world; on average, between 2 million and 3 million attend.
And that means there’s the potential to spread illnesses such as swine flu.
The joint request also urges healthy people traveling to Mecca to get the H1N1 vaccine before making the holy pilgrimage, which this year begins Nov. 25.
The request isn’t a big deal for many Silicon Valley Muslims.
First, since the long flight to Saudi Arabia and the hours of standing and walking while making the hajj are grueling enough, most young, old and pregnant people don’t go anyway.
Second, many also share this attitude. “We’re making the trip for God, so most people think that God
will protect us,” said Imam Tahir Anwar, a 31-year-old San Jose Muslim leader who regularly leads trips of hundreds of Bay Area Muslims on the hajj.
“And if someone gets sick, well, that also is the will of God.”
This is the first swine-flu advisory issued for the hajj, but not the first health advisory.
Several years ago, there were fears about meningitis, and a similar advisory was issued, said Shahul Ebrahim, the leading Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist who wrote the recommendation, and who also happens to be a Muslim.
Now, it’s a requirement to have a meningitis vaccine before flying to the Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia.
As a public service before the hajj, Ebrahim said, philanthropists are handing out free personal hygiene kits at the airport, complete with alcohol sanitizer and masks, to about 1.7 million air travelers.
And, he said, the Saudi Arabian king has promised that if anyone gets sick during the hajj, the government will pay for all hospitalization costs.
By Lisa Fernandez
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