Mecca, Asharq Al-Awsat- This year’s hajj pilgrimage has been overshadowed by fears over the H1N1 swine flu virus, and in fact four pilgrims have already died as a result of this. Up to three million Muslims from around the world take part in the hajj pilgrimage every year, and as with any gathering of this size, it is fraught with danger.
Before the age of international travel, the greatest dangers that were faced by hajj pilgrims was the perilous journey to and from Mecca, with the pilgrims caravan often being beset by bandits or wild animals. This is not to mention the threat of dying from thirst or starvation. However now that international travel has made this journey simple, the dangers come from the vast numbers of pilgrims who perform hajj each year as such large gatherings bring with it the threat of stampedes and disease. In 1990, 1,400 pilgrims were killed during a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel linking Mecca with Mount Arafat. While in 1991, Saudi Arabia banned pilgrims from Uganda from attending hajj due to fears of the deadly Ebola virus.
However, the Saudi Arabian authorities have spent billions of dollars improving the hajj infrastructure. Thousands of fire-proof tents have been erected at Mina where pilgrims camp out for one night during the hajj, and police helicopters now fly over the crowds to identify any potential bottlenecks. This year an additional 15,000 health workers have been deployed in the region to deal with any swine flu outbreak. As with any hajj pilgrimage, there are far more ordinary health threats as well. The following is a list of health advice provided by Asharq Al-Awsat for hajj pilgrims;
To prevent food poisoning:
Do not eat food that has been exposed in the open to flies and dust.
Do eat packaged and preserved food, but only after checking the expiry date.
Do not eat food sold by street vendors.
Be sure to wash all fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating.
Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food and before eating.
Make sure to clean all pots, tools, and surfaces used in food preparation.
Only filtered and purified water should be used for drinking and cooking, otherwise make sure to boil all water before using.
To prevent catching HIV and hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
Do not share shaving tools, razor, shaving cream, etc.
Discard shaving tools, razors, shaving cream, etc, in the special place designated for this purpose.
Be careful not to step on razors discarded improperly on the ground.
To prevent heatstroke.
Before noon, avoid performing the tawaf [circumambulation of the Ka’bah] or going outside unnecessarily.
Use a good quality umbrella, one that not just blocks sunlight, but also reflects heat.
Take a break after completing each of the Hajj rituals.
Remember to keep hydrated.