Sunday, 2 December 2012

Research on Haj: The annual Islamic pilgrimage gives insight into mass gathering medicine and helps planning crowd health management

Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: The annual Haj season is a major opportunity for
scientists and health planners to do research on the impact of mass
gatherings on human health. Dozens of scientists the world over are
now researching on emerging pathogens and diseases and how infectious
diseases can be controlled through scientific planning during mass
gatherings like Haj.

According to science journal Lancet, “the exchange of experiences
between the organizers and hosts of the 2012 Olympic Games and the Haj
provides an ideal platform to take the formal discipline of mass
gathering forward. Both events will provide the opportunity for
appropriate research to obtain an evidence base and for guidelines
approved by the World Health Organisation”.

The Haj is growing by two lakh people every year. A Global Mass
Gathering Network led by Saudi Arabia has been formed to study
initially 2012 Olympics and the Haj. This will be extended to other
mass gatherings like the Kumbh Mela scheduled for next year.
“In 2013, the plan is to devise indicators to measure the health of
people attending mass gatherings, alongside a research agenda in
partnership with the WHO and others.”

Dr Shuja Shafi, deputy secretary-general of the Muslim Council of
Britain and honorary consultant medical microbiologist, NW London
Hospitals NHS Trust, London, is an expert on studies on mass gathering
and their impact on people’s health. “Apart from its religious and
spiritual significance, almost anything else that is associated with
the Haj is unique and amazing. The larger it grows the more
fascinating it becomes, seemingly worldly problems associated with the
Haj attract attention of Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” he said.

The international outbreak of meningitis associated with an otherwise
unknown strain of meningococcus among pilgrims returning from Haj in
the years 2000 and 2001 are summarised have helped in better planning
by health authorities. Introduction of a specific vaccine
(quadrivalent ACW135Y) vaccine brought about an abrupt end to the
outbreak and the infection being acquired during Haj.

“As large gatherings increase in number and complexity and grow
bigger, managing them effectively an efficiently is perhaps the
biggest public health challenge facing the world”, said Dr Shuja
Shafi, who hails from Hyderabad.

Communicable diseases, respiratory infections, blood borne infections
(associated with head shaving), gastro intestinal infections are
common. Control and management of infections in the wake of Pandemic
H1 N1 influenza (in 2009) placed the Saudi authorities in good stead
to deal with issues relating to the Coronavirus infection (SARS-like)
reported recently.

Dr Shafi said with a high prevalence of diabetes and heart disease,
there is now focus on these non-communicable diseases. Appropriate
advice and prevention of complications or adverse events while at Haj
is now emerging as the major health challenge for organisers.

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