Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Will Swine Flu Threaten Hajj?

Swine flu scares have raised concerns among the annual pilgrimage travelers and the Muslim religious heads in Egypt are planning to delay the trip to Mecca.

The authorities in Cairo also indicated that it will step up its screening process for the citizens returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca from Saudi Arabia before the Hajj season.

Egypt's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ali Jumua, has urged the Hajj travelers to decide how long the pilgrimage rites of the Hajj could be postponed, according to BBC.

More than two million people traveled to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, which will begin in November.

The World Health Organization reported that as of Friday 34 countries have officially reported 7520 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection, with Mexico reporting 2446 laboratory confirmed human cases of infection, including 60 deaths.

According to the WHO, limiting travel and imposing travel restrictions would have very little effect on stopping the virus from spreading, "but would be highly disruptive to the global community."

Egyptian government wants to take pre-emptive measures to prevent its spread into the country that has not yet reported a confirmed case related to the infection. Saudi Arabia has also not contracted the flu yet.

But the threat of contracting swine flu is higher during the people's gathering during the Hajj season.

Mohammed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque, said that if the level of pandemic alert is raised from five to six, it is likely that people would delay the pilgrimage rites by at least a few weeks.

Early this month, hundreds of pig farmers clashed with the riot police in the capital city of Egypt as they try to stop the government from taking away their pigs to slaughter.

The authorities in Cairo have stepped up measures to accelerate pigs slaughter to curb the spread of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus.

The government has also been criticized for overreacting to the threat and not providing compensation to the pig-farmers for their losses. There is no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products, according to the WHO.

Some excerpts....

At CrossRoads Arabia, John Burgess explains:

A Saudi researcher in Shariah law find that there is precedent to ban Umrah pilgrims (those who undertake the non-obligatory, ‘lesser’ pilgrimage) who come from areas beset with the A/H1N1 or swine flu virus. I suspect that this opinion is being floated now in anticipation of the Haj, which will take place in late November. The Haj is obligatory, in that every Muslim is required to perform the pilgrimage at least once in his/her life, if feasible.

Similar concerns were raised a few years ago, when bird flu (H5N1) was threatening. One Saudi scholar called for Haj to be canceled if there were a severe outbreak, but that proposal was shot down by others. The argument was that Haj had never been canceled on public health grounds and that to do so would be counter to Islam. Rather, those who are ill are morally obliged to not perform Haj.

Communicable diseases and Haj are historical companions. There are many records of outbreaks of disease, from plague to cholera, killing thousands in Mecca, Madinah, and Jeddah over the years. Only toward the end of the 19th C. did strictly enforced quarantines [210-page PDF] work to stop the spread of diseases out of the region, back to the homes of the pilgrims. Quarantines and strict enforcement of medical screening can protect pilgrims and that might be enough. Only time will tell. Swine flu, as bird flu before it, may turn out to be a non-issue. If it does not, however, it good that people are starting to think about it now.

The Middle East Institute's Editor's Blog adds:

This is getting stranger and stranger. The Grand Mufti of Egypt is suggesting Muslim scholars issue a collective fatwa [religious edict] to postpone the hajj due to swine flu. Arabic version is here. Keep in mind — I know I keep repeating it — there have been no cases in Egypt. In fact, according to WHO's rundown as of yesterday, the only cases confirmed in the entire Middle East are in Israel (seven cases). And WHO says, “WHO is not recommending travel restrictions related to the outbreak of the influenza A(H1N1) virus.” Oh, yes, and another thing: the hajj isn't until November. Am I missing something here? Has the hajj ever been postponed for health reasons, in all of Islamic history? I don't know, but I expect you'd need at least one infected person to justify it. (Not only are there no cases in the Middle East, except Israel, but none in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan — well, anywhere Muslim.)


Rodger Bailey said...

As far as I have seen reported, the swine flu is somewhat less severe than the seasonal flu.

Tens of thousands of folks die from the seasonal flu every year in the USA and it's not clear that the swine flu can kill you any more that the seasonal one. For both seasonal and swine flu, the deaths come from complications or other, underlying conditions.

Rodger Bailey, MS
HQ For Swine Influenza (Flu)Colloidal Silver is a natural antiviral and antibiotic

John Burgess said...

Bahrain is reporting its first case of swine flu. Some media reports are suggesting more than a little panic resulting.