Monday, May 18, 2009

H1N1 poses dilemma for Hajj
By: AFP
Published: 18/05/2009 at 10:46 PM
Flu experts are casting a worried eye at the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, fearing that if swine influenza poses a threat six months from now, a health crisis would be massively complicated by the Hajj.

Specialists questioned at a major medical conference in Helsinki shuddered at the implications if a highly contagious, novel flu virus were unleashed at the world's biggest annual gathering.

In the grimmest scenarios, the pathogen would not only find easy pickings among the elderly, the weak and sick in Mecca -- it would also hitch a plane ride among pilgrims returning home and thus spread farther.

"Just imagine, you have a virus that starts to spread over the world, then you bring people together from all over the world, put them all together for a couple of weeks, then you take them out again,'' said Albert Osterhaus, a professor at the Erasmus Medical Centre at the University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

"If there's a mechanism by which you want to spread a virus, this is it.''

Last December, an estimated two and a half million worshippers travelled to Islam's holiest site for the three-day fulfillment of their faith. This year's pilgrimage takes place November 25-28.

In interviews with AFP at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID), Osterhaus and other specialists cautioned against alarmism, but urged Hajj organisers to start formulating response plans.

"The Hajj will take place, it's not like one of those things which is like a Pink Floyd concert, and you say, 'we don't need the concert'. This event will go through, that's for sure,'' said Andreas Voess, professor of Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands.

"I believe that the health authorities there, with the help of the WHO and others, would need to look at what do we do, what do we advise people... they have to be prepared and they have to start thinking about what to do now and not when they have got the first pilgrimage victim with influenza.''

He added: "It is something that has to be looked at, it really does.''

Since influenza (A)H1N1 swine flu leapt into the spotlight on April 24, nearly 8,500 people have fallen sick, according to the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO).

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