Last Updated: Wed Sep 26, 2012 16:59 pm (KSA) 13:59 pm (GMT)

Saudi Arabia adopts measures to limit virus infection during Haj, amid global alerts

The new virus, which is in the same family as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, was recently identified by the British Health Protection Agency in a Qatari man transferred to London from Qatar. (AFP)
The new virus, which is in the same family as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, was recently identified by the British Health Protection Agency in a Qatari man transferred to London from Qatar. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has taken precautions to prevent disease spreading among Muslim pilgrims next month after a Qatari man was infected with a virus related to the deadly SARS, a health ministry official said on Wednesday.

The World Health Organization put out a global alert on Sunday saying a new, previously unknown, virus had infected a 49-year-old Qatari man who had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia, where another man with an almost identical virus had already died.

Britain’s Health Protection Agency and respiratory disease experts said there was no immediate cause for concern, although authorities were watching for any signs of the virus spreading.

Muslims from some 160 countries flock to Mecca and Medina during the annual Haj pilgrimage, which begins in late October. Some arrive by plane, others by boat or by car.

“The Health Ministry has taken preventative measures to deal with the influx of over 2 million Haj pilgrims,” Ziad Memish, the deputy minister for public health, told Reuters.

“The measures include monitoring the entrances through land, sea and air to evaluate the people entering and obtain samples if any symptoms are apparent,” he added.

In 2009 Saudi Arabia set up thermal cameras at its airports and increased the number of its medics as part of its measures to limit the spread of the H1N1 flu. It will not resort to using thermal cameras this year, Memish said.

“There is also continuous monitoring in the holy places in Mecca and Medina and Jeddah, with teams on the ground and hospitals to deal with them.”

Meanwhile, five people have been isolated in a hospital in Denmark with symptoms of a new viral respiratory illness from the same family as the deadly SARS virus, the hospital said on Wednesday.

“We have sent samples from the five for testing and hope to get the results this afternoon,” chief physician Svend Stenvang Petersen of Odense University Hospital told AFP.

“The five have a fever, coughing and influenza-like symptoms,” he added.

Petersen said those admitted were a family of four where the father had been to Saudi Arabia, and an unrelated person who had been to Qatar. Two of those with symptoms were under the age of five.

“We have put them in isolation because we don’t know how the virus spreads. So just as with bird and swine flu we have admitted them and isolated them so that we prevent the spread to others,” Petersen said.

“We do not have any medicine that works against this virus.”

The five contacted their doctors following a Danish health authority advisory on Monday recommending that those who had travelled to Qatar and Saudi Arabia seek medical help if they experienced a fever, coughing, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

The WHO confirmed in a global alert on Monday that the new virus was in the coronavirus family which causes the common cold but can also include more severe illnesses including SARS.

SARS swept out of China in 2003, killing more than 800 people worldwide.

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