- Like Ebola, Nigeria’s public health officials must be wary of this fast-spreading respiratory disease, first reported in Saudi Arabia
Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj cannot be too careful, following the news of an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)-CoV, which has claimed about 513 lives so far. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health said the country has recorded 1, 205 cases, out of which 614 have recovered, 65 are active and 13 are quarantined at home.
A viral respiratory illness new to humans, MERS was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to other countries, including the United States, Jordan, Republic of Korea, Philippines, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. It is a cause for worry that symptoms of the sickness are ambiguous at the early stage, making its detection complicated and constituting a challenge to healing.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), whose emergency committee sounded the alarm ahead of the September 22 commencement of the Hajj, said: “It is not always possible to identify patients with MERS-CoV early because, like other respiratory infections, the early symptoms are non-specific.” In other words, the illness is accompanied by, but not defined by, fever, cough and shortness of breath.
The outbreak so close to the Hajj, according to the WHO, raises the threat of pilgrims returning to their respective countries with the virus. The organisation said: “The recent outbreak in the Republic of Korea demonstrated that when the MERS virus appears in a new setting, there is a great potential for widespread transmission and severe disruption to the health system and to society”
With 66,000 Nigerian pilgrims expected to be flown to the holy land ahead of the closure of Jedda Airport on September 17, and scheduled to return to Nigeria in batches in an operation that will be concluded by October 27, it is obvious that viral infection is a possibility.
It is commendable that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has adopted measures to protect the country’s pilgrims. The body’s Commissioner-in-charge of Health, Dr. Ibrahim Kuta, reportedly publicised its preventive measures, which include making the pilgrims aware of the danger of eating camel meat in the holy land as such consumption has been implicated, setting up a surveillance unit and screening all returning pilgrims at the departure point in the holy land in order to check possible export of the virus to Nigeria. Also, any Nigerian pilgrim that develops symptoms of the illness is expected to report promptly to the official medical team that accompanied the country’s pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.
‘With 66,000 Nigerian pilgrims expected to be flown to the holy land ahead of the closure of Jedda Airport on September 17, and scheduled to return to Nigeria in batches in an operation that will be concluded by October 27, it is obvious that viral infection is a possibility’
It is noteworthy that the WHO said: “Infection prevention and control measures are critical to prevent the possible spread of MERS-CoV in health care facilities.” It is hoped that the Nigerian health officials would be guided by the insight of the global health body.
Against the backdrop of public anxiety about MERS, the September 8 news of the deaths of five Nigerian pilgrims in the holy land, four in Madinah and one in Mecca, is a cause for concern, especially because the causes of their deaths were undisclosed. The development is a further reason for proactive alertness on the part of the relevant health officials.
The September 11 crane collapse at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, resulting in the loss of 87 lives (including a reported six Nigerians, according to Saidu Adamu, Kaduna State Task Force on Hajj spokesperson), provides an additional reason to be prepared to deal with emergencies that may involve Nigerian pilgrims.
There is no doubt that, in the circumstances, it would be a tough challenge to ensure that the country’s pilgrims return safe and sound. However, with proper preparation, readiness and vigilance, the medical and welfare-support workers should be able to prevent disasters that can be avoided.