The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) and Primary Health Care Corporation (PHCC) have reminded Haj pilgrims to take steps to ensure they and their families are safeguarded against infectious diseases they might come into contact with.
According to the MoPH, three important vaccines are recommended for those going on Haj this year. The vaccines are meningococcal meningitis, seasonal flu and pneumococcal. The MoPH recommends that pilgrims should complete these vaccinations at least 10 days before their departure to Saudi Arabia.
“It is mandatory for all adults and children over two years to receive meningococcal vaccine at least 10 days before commencing their Haj journey. Meningococcal vaccine may be used with caution in pregnancy, although it is not mandatory for pregnant women going for Haj,” said Dr Hamad Eid al-Romaihi, Manager of Health Protection and Communicable Disease Control at MoPH.
“Furthermore, all pilgrims should be vaccinated against seasonal flu. Individuals who are at an increased risk of severe influenza diseases, particularly pregnant women, children under five years, the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions such as human immunodeficiency virus, asthma, or chronic heart or lung diseases, are urged to take the annual seasonal flu vaccine this year,” he explained.
Dr al-Romaihi added that pneumococcal vaccination is recommended for high risk people aged between two and 64 years with chronic medical conditions like sickle cell anaemia, splenectomy and renal failure; healthy adults aged from 18-64 years with unknown or incomplete pneumococcal vaccine series in childhood; and healthy adults aged 50-64 years with no pneumococcal vaccine after 18 years.
All high risk individuals are also advised to protect themselves by receiving the flu vaccine.
According to Dr Samya al-Abdulla, Executive Director of Operations at the PHCC, meningococcal meningitis, seasonal flu and pneumococcal vaccines are available at all health centres, including the main vaccination unit in Messaimer Health Centre in Abu Hamour.
“Those going for Haj are encouraged to visit their respective health centres to get the vaccines at least 10 days ahead of their travel, in order to ensure they are adequately protected against all communicable diseases, which they could potentially be exposed to while in Saudi Arabia. Getting vaccinated will also guarantee that they do not bring back to Qatar any of these communicable diseases, the spread of which could threaten and burden the healthcare infrastructure here,” added Dr. Samya.
Dr Saad al-Nuaimi, Senior Consultant in Emergency Medicine at HMC, stressed that pilgrims must take health precautions prior to travel, during their journey, and at the end of their trip.
Among the most common illnesses contracted during Haj are respiratory illnesses, including throat and upper respiratory tract and lung infections which are usually caused by viruses that spread rapidly among crowds.”
To protect against these infections, pilgrims should follow simple ‘cough hygiene’ safety measures such as using tissue paper when coughing or sneezing, in addition to ensuring that used tissues are disposed of carefully.
“Washing hands frequently with soap and water, and avoiding hand contact with the eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible can also be very useful,” Dr. al-Nuaimi said. He recommended seeking urgent medical advice if pilgrims experience cough, fever and any breathing difficulty.
He noted that such precautions are important measures in guarding against contracting the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), a serious respiratory illness which is a real concern in the region.
“The virus has been reported to spread from person to person through extended close contact so it is advisable to avoid direct contact with people who exhibit symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, runny nose, vomiting and diarrhoea,” Dr. al-Nuaimi advised.
While performing Haj, it is important to remember that daytime temperatures can be very high, so loss of body fluid through excessive sweating (dehydration) and many heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat syncope, heat exhaustion and even heat stroke can occur.
“To avoid such illnesses, pilgrims should ensure they remain well hydrated, drinking plenty of clean water, preferably bottled or boiled and cooled water. Other preventive steps include regularly applying high protection sunscreen (at least SPF 15), and carrying umbrellas to shade away sunlight. Whenever feasible, it is advisable to complete the ritual walk around the Kaaba (Tawaf) in the evening or at night,” Dr. al-Nuaimi advised.
He added that the risk of trauma and injuries is heightened with the influx of pilgrims to Makkah during Haj. “Pilgrims should avoid peak times to circumambulate and choose times when the number of people is likely to be less,” he said.
Another important issue to be aware of is making sure that when men shave their heads after the completion of Haj, they use clean blades. “Unclean shaving blades can transmit blood-borne viruses, such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and Human Immuno-deficiency virus. Therefore, pilgrims should never share shaving blades,” Dr. al-Nuaimi cautioned.
Other useful precautions include carrying medical/first aid kits, which contain plasters, dressings and painkillers in case of emergency, and also taking a good supply of regular medicines, copies of prescriptions, as well as a doctor’s letter that describes the pilgrim’s medical history in detail.
If upon return any pilgrim develops an illness and notices worsening symptoms, especially a fever that is higher than 38 degrees Celsius, a cough or breathing problems, the individual should seek immediate medical assistance from any urgent care centre, Dr. al-Nuaimi said, adding that the person should inform the treating physician about their Haj trip for any further advice.