Every year, the Ministry of Health, under the guidance of its Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah has a huge task of serving millions of Haj pilgrims who come from all parts of the globe.
Al-Rabeeah believes that his ministry is only implementing the vision of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, who has always stressed the importance of people’s health as a topmost priority in serving mankind.
A few months following the month of Haj, a meeting is held under the chairmanship of the Ministry of Health (MOH), where the Haj program of the year is be reviewed and future programs are chalked out for the subsequent Haj seasons.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has applauded the Kingdom for its outstanding services provided to pilgrims and it has also commended for its remarkable performance in a special mass gathering medicine program, which is also appreciated by the world community.
The Haj program of the ministry starts with the quarantine measures adopted for Haj, who come from countries including those affected by infectious diseases.
The ministry sends out circulars to the foreign ministry here, which circulate them among all its embassies and the requirements are spelled out in the respective countries when pilgrim visas are issued.
Health ministry spokesman Dr. Khalid Al-Mirghalani said the Kingdom carefully monitors developments that are taking place throughout the globe in the field of infectious diseases. He said the stipulated requirements in the new circular are in line with the WHO’s requirements to control the spread of infectious diseases in the world.
This year, he said, the Kingdom had focused on diseases such as yellow fever, meningitis, seasonal influenza, polio and food poisoning.
He said the stipulated vaccines should be given 10 days before the date of departure to Makkah and Madinah.
He said vaccination against meningitis is mandatory for local and foreign pilgrims.
The vaccination should be given 10 days before departure and it is valid only for a period of three years.While this is clearly a long propaganda story, with MERS buried near the end, I remain pretty confident in the Saudis' ability to handle (and prevent) disease outbreaks in the Haj. They've been doing this for a long time, and they're pretty fussy about vaccination certificates being up to date and authentic (there was a scandal a few years ago when some Nigerians tried to go on Haj with phony yellow-fever vaccination papers).
I'm also happy to see they mentioned polio. When the Saudi Muslims endorse polio vaccination, it leaves Pakistani anti-vaccine thugs without a theological leg to stand on.
So I'm fairly confident that the pilgrims will return home with little more than the usual colds and seasonal flu.
But in following Saudi MERS reports, I sense an unusual anxiety and defensiveness. It's understandable. We still don't know how people contract it (except from other human cases). The number of mild and asymptomatic cases suggests far more MERS carriers may be roaming the Kingdom, unwittingly exposing Saudis and pilgrims alike to the disease. That in itself must be enough to keep the health authorities sleepless every night.
Still, the reluctance to publish more information about the cases does not inspire confidence. I'm glad to see Dr. Ziad Al-Memish publishing about MERS in the journals; he's clearly the best spokesperson the Saudis have on the subject. But his article today on the potential global threat of MERS offers no real evidence that the threat is "minimal."
He invokes the absence of MERS in the 2012 Haj, but the virus had barely emerged at that point. Warning off the elderly, the diabetic, and others is a good idea, but seems to be feebly enforced. (Zeenews has a report on three Indian centenarians making the pilgrimage this year.)
Urging pilgrims to be hygienic doesn't really inspire confidence, nor does the decision of the WHO Emergency Committee that this is not a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
I would actually be more encouraged if the Saudis did more or less what the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection has been doing about MERS: Report each case or suspected case in some detail, report the test results, and remind us that they remain ready to pounce on MERS wherever and whenever it shows itself.