Muslims warned to avoid camels and raw milk in Mecca over virus fears

Health officials warn British Muslims to avoid camels and raw milk if they travel to the holy city of Mecca amid fears of deadly MERS virus

  • Hajj this year will take place from August 9 to August 14, the Foreign Office says
  • Millions of Muslims from around the world will travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia
  • People are urged to avoid camels, camel products and raw milks
  • MERS kills about a third of people who get it and can be spread between humans 

British Muslims travelling to the Middle East for pilgrimages have been warned to avoid camels because they can spread a potentially deadly virus.

The animals and products, such as their raw milk, can spread Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS), Public Health England said.

Hajj, Islam’s major pilgrimage, runs from August 9 to August 14 this year. Thousands of Britons are expected to travel to Saudi Arabia for the ritual.

And although there is only a ‘very low’ risk of getting MERS, a patient was diagnosed with the killer virus in Leeds last year after making the trip.

Millions of people travel to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage every year in a Muslim ritual which requires them to visit the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (Pictured: A time-lapse of people visiting the Great Mosque of Mecca in August last year)

‘We strongly advise travellers to avoid contact with camels and consumption of camel products in the Middle East and to practise good hand hygiene,’ said PHE’s Dr Gavin Dabrera.

‘Pilgrims returning from Hajj and Umrah with symptoms including fever and cough or shortness of breath, within 14 days of leaving the Middle East, should call their GP immediately or NHS 111 and mention their travel history.’

Globally, at least 2,449 people have been infected with the illness since 2012, according to the World Health Organization, and 845 of them have died.

The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus is viral respiratory illness that was recently recognized in humans.

The virus kills around four in 10 patients. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Since, cases have cropped up in other countries, including the US, UK and several countries in Europe.

Patients tend to show symptoms, such as a fever, cough or diarrhoea, about five days after being infected.

People are more susceptible to MERS if they have pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes.

Individuals with weakened immune systems – such as those on HIV drugs – are also at higher risk of getting MERS.

The most at-risk are: 

  • Recent travelers from the Arabian Peninsula
  • People who have had close contact, such as caring for or living with, an ill traveller from the Arabian Peninsula
  • People who have had close contact, such as caring for or living with, a confirmed case of MERS  
  • Healthcare personnel who do not use recommended infection-control precautions
  • People who have had contact with camels

Around a third of people who get the incurable illness die from it, according to the WHO, but this could be an overestimate if minor cases are not diagnosed.

Symptoms include breathing difficulties, coughing, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea and muscle pain.

There have been more than 150 cases of infection in Saudi Arabia – home to the pilgrimage city of Mecca – already this year.

And PHE said there is ‘growing evidence’ that camels may be spreading the illness. It can also spread by close contact between people.

In its advice, PHE urges people to practise good hygiene especially after visiting farms or markets, avoid raw milks and camel products, and be vigilant about feverish symptoms.

PHE’s Dr Dipti Patel added: ‘Pilgrims are strongly advised to follow our specific guidance about staying safe and healthy when travelling.’

Hajj is a Muslim ritual which involves visiting the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

All Muslims must complete it at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to.

And Umrah is a smaller, optional trip in which people may make the trip to Mecca at any time of the year.

Hajj takes place on specific dates, this year covering less than a week, and around 3.7million people are expected to travel to it, including 25,000 from the UK.

So many people in one place could make it a prime location for the MERS virus to spread.

Last year’s case in England was diagnosed in a resident of the Middle East who had travelled on a plane from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Manchester.

PHE did not reveal whether it was a man or woman, only that they had to be taken to a hospital in Liverpool for specialist care.

The Government body contacted a number of people who travelled with them on the plane but nobody else was diagnosed.

Dr Jenny Harries, its medical director, said at the time: ‘It is important to emphasise that although a case has been identified, the overall risk of disease transmission to the public is very low.’

That was only the fifth time a case of MERS had been diagnosed in England, with previous cases in 2012/13. 


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