As pilgrims leave for Haj, health experts warn of Middle East virus

With more than 1.35 lakh Haj and Umrah pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia, a country that has recorded several cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Cornonavirus (MERS-CoV), health experts fear the virus can spread if precautions are not taken.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), the outbreak, first reported in 2012, has so far spread to nine countries. Since September 2012, 130 cases have been reported, which include 58 deaths.

Dr Suleman Merchant, head of radiology department in Sion Hospital, said that doctors are still in the dark with no standard precautions or treatment known. "Pilgrims should maintain hygiene because with bigger crowds, there is a high chance of contracting the virus. Those suffering from cough and cold are more prone to this virus since it is an airborne disease," Merchant said.

In a letter to the Haj Committee of India, the guidelines laid by the Saudi authorities state that every pilgrim must receive vaccination of seasonal influenza besides the compulsory meningococcal meningitis and oral polio vaccine. Pilgrims suffering from cough, cold, heart problems, respiratory issues, nerve disease or diabetes are more prone to contracting MERS corona virus. However a WHO official admitted that there is no definite control measure of this disease.

MERS-CoV is the sixth new type of coronavirus like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) with symptoms of cough, cold and breathlessness. It can further lead to renal failure and acute pneumonia.

According to Haji Ebrahim Gulam Nabi Shaikh, member of the Haj committee, there are around 7,000 pilgrims from Mumbai and a general polio and meningitis vaccination will be given to all of them. "We have, however, not received any precautionary measures for MERS virus," he said. The Haj committee maintains nine branch dispensaries and a main dispensary in Makkah and two branch dispensaries and a main dispensary in Madinah for pilgrims.

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