Returning Hajj pilgrims urged to be alert for signs of illness | Asia Pacific

Returning Hajj pilgrims urged to be alert for signs of illness

Returning Hajj pilgrims urged to be alert for signs of illness

Updated 21 October 2013, 13:31 AEDT

Health experts are warning that a deadly virus found mainly in Saudi Arabia may spread, as Islamic pilgrims return home from the Hajj.

Since first being identified a year ago, there have been more than 130 cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS identified.

The high mortality rate of the virus had Saudi authorities concerned about the Hajj pilgrimage, which ended late last week, although experts say the danger period isn't over.

Presenter:Bill Birtles

Speaker: Professor Charles Watson, Curtin University; Gregory Hartl, World Health Organisation spokesman

BIRTLES: The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome bears similarities to the SARS virus, which claimed hundreds of lives in China a decade ago.

But since first being identified in late 2012, its spread has mainly been contained to Saudi Arabia.

Which is why millions of pilgrims arriving for the annual Hajj had authorities extremely worried.

Gregory Hartl is a spokesman for the World Health Organisation - he says Saudi Arabian authorities were well prepared.

HARTL: 'In addition this year, there were extra staff, extra ambulances, extra checks, plus a lot of information was handed out to the pilgrims about what they might need to do if they felt feverish or had problems breathing, so it was an extensive effort on the part of the Saudis.'

BIRTLES: He says although the virus hasn't shown signs of human to human transmission, health authorities still need to be on alert.

HARTL:'It could well be that a returning pilgrim gets back, starts feeling sick and is found to be diagnosed with MERS, and what we consequently are asking countries to do is to increase their surveillance and to know what symptoms to look for on the one hand, and for pilgrims to be on alert and to tell their doctors they were on Hajj if they start to feel sick'.

BIRTLES: The Hajj pilgrimage was long seen as the riskiest stage for the spread of the MERS virus.

Charles Watson, a Professor of a Health Sciences at Curtin University in Perth, says the next few weeks will be crucial to see whether new cases emerge outside the Middle East.

WATSON: 'If there was to be a problem with the pilgrims going to the Hajj, it would be when they return to their respective countries when the problems might emerge.'

BIRTLES: He says though the number of cases has been low, the steady increase in cases of the virus is worrying.

WATSON: "It has climbed steadily since the first notification which I think was about a year ago I think that is still a concern, and it's also a concern when anytime a viral disease jumps from an animal to a human host, because we don't know what will happen in the future with it.'

BIRTLES: He says the origins of the virus are still not clear.

WATSON: 'Certainly bats in the Arabian peninsular seem to carry a closely-linked form of the virus, and camels are suspected to be an intermediate host which might transmit it to humans, but that's by no means proven. There's some nice evidence, but the whole story has not been tied up yet. The one thing we do know is when humans get it, the mortality rate is quite high, about 50 per cent, but secondly, the transmission rate between humans is quite low. Most of the cases have been in people who are a bit older or have had some form of chronic illness, so there's not uniform susceptibility and it doesn't spread very fast like SARS did'.

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