By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: The shadow of novel Coronavirus is likely to haunt
the annual Haj season, which begins in the next two weeks. India sends
the third largest contingent of Haj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia with
about 1.70 lakh Indians performing Haj.
The novel Coronavirus, detected early this week in two Arab nationals,
has already claimed one life. The other patient is receiving treatment
in a hospital in London. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has
suggested precautions during this Haj season, but felt a travel
advisory is not necessary at this stage.
The Haj Committee of India, which processes about 1.30 lakh Haj
pilgrims from the country, is yet to come out with an official
statement on the novel Coronavirus and the likely health problems it
creates for pilgrims. Haj is the world’s largest peaceful annual
gathering of humanity with nearly three million people rubbing
shoulders and performing prayers in the open grounds. Any outbreak of
a disease may lead to a pandemic as people from more than 100
countries participate in the Haj.
Though Coronaviruses are not new, the strain that was found in two
Arab nationals is of a novel type. It mimics Severe Acute Respiratory
Syndrome (SARS) and common cold, and is capable of spreading from
person to person through cough. Viruses that spread through nasal
route pose a major threat to public health during massive
congregations like the Haj.
Saudi guidelines make it mandatory for all intending pilgrims to be
vaccinated against novel human influenza and other major health issues
including meningitis and polio. But city doctors express doubt whether
the vaccine against novel H1N1 will give protection. Says Dr Aftab
Ahmed, expert in internal medicine, “Since novel Coronavirus is a new
strain, we do not know how it behaves. But the best way to prevent its
spread is through simple precautions like proper washing of hands and
following of cough etiquette. Use of disposable towels and kerchiefs
while coughing or sneezing will be great help”.
The Saudi health ministry has asked people to wash hands, follow
personal hygiene and wear masks during the Haj and Umrah. Infectious
diseases expert Dr Suneetha Narreddy points out that viruses evolve
constantly and the best way of protecting oneself from novel strains
like Coronavirus is to isolate people with the symptoms. “Those with
flu symptoms better stay at home and not travel till their health
improves,” she says adding that it is too early to issue a general
According to WHO, Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which
includes viruses that cause the common cold and SARS. Given that this
is a novel Coronavirus, WHO is currently in the process of obtaining
further information to determine the public health implications of
these two confirmed cases.
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