MERS virus: Health advisory for Umrah and Haj pilgrims

An Asian man wears a mouth and nose mask as he walks in a street of the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on April 27, 2014.
PHOTO: MERS virus: Health advisory for Umrah and Haj pilgrims

Saudi Arabia has found 25 more cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as the rate of infections rises and two more people have died from the new disease, the kingdom's Health Ministry said.

On Friday seven people were confirmed as having MERS, followed by 18 more on Saturday, the biggest daily increase in new infections so far. The total number of cases in the kingdom is 396, of whom 109 have died.

The new cases include nine in Riyadh, 10 in Jeddah, four in Mecca and two in Medina. In July many foreign pilgrims are expected to visit Mecca and Medina during Islam's fasting month of Ramadan. Millions more are expected in early October for the annual Haj.

On Friday the US said it had discovered its first confirmed case of the disease in a man who had recently been in Saudi Arabia. Egypt said it discovered its first case, also in a man who had been in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

Infections of MERS in Saudi Arabia, where it was discovered two years ago, have more than doubled since the start of April, but the total number of deaths has increased at a slower rate.

A higher number of people without symptoms are also being found with the disease, suggesting that the rapid increase in recent weeks is partly due to wider testing of people who have been in close contact with MERS patients.

MERS, a form of coronavirus like the more deadly SARS, can cause fever, coughing, shortness of breath and pneumonia. However, it is not easy to transmit between people and the World Health Organisation has not advised any travel restrictions for Saudi Arabia.

Scientists say the most likely animal reservoir, from which new cases are becoming infected, is Saudi Arabia's population of camels.

In view of the current situation, the Ministry of Health (MOH) would like to advise Umrah and Haj pilgrims of the following:

  • Be vaccinated against influenza and meningitis. Persons aged 65 years and above or with chronic medical conditions should also get vaccinated pneumococcal infections.
  • Pilgrims with pre-existing chronic medical conditions (e.g. diabetes, chronic bronchitis) should consult a medical practitioner before travelling to assess whether making the pilgrimage is medically advisable.
  • Avoid close contact with persons suffering from acute respiratory infections.
  • Avoid contact with camels and other live farm or wild animals, including not visiting camel farms. 
  • If contact has been made, thoroughly wash hands with soap.
  • Observe good personal hygiene at all times, and practise frequent hand washing with soap and water, before handling food or eating, after going to toilet, or when hands are dirtied by respiratory secretions after coughing or sneezing and in particular, after direct contact with ill persons or their environment.
  • Persons who are sick are reminded to cover their nose and mouth with tissue when sneezing or coughing, and to dispose of the tissue properly.
  • Pilgrims are advised to wear masks (i.e. surgical masks) during their pilgrimage, especially when in crowded places.
  • Adopt good food safety and hygiene practices and avoid consuming unpasteurised milk, undercooked meats, raw fruits and vegetables (unless they have been peeled), or unsafe water.
  • Wear a mask and seek medical attention promptly if you become unwell with fever and cough and/or breathlessness while travelling or within 2 weeks after returning to Singapore, and inform the doctor of your travel history.

For the latest update on the Health Advisory, please refer to www.moh.gov.sg.