Millions of pilgrims from all corners of the world traveled to Saudi Arabia for the start of the hajj in the past week, but some West African Muslims will not be able to take part in the sacred journey this year because of public health fears surrounding the Ebola outbreak.
Saudi Arabia issued a travel ban on citizens of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone as what it called a “precautionary measure,” saying the risk of Ebola infection is too high for travelers from those countries to be allowed entry now.
The Ebola-stricken countries each have sizable Muslim populations. In Liberia, which is the epicenter of the epidemic and has seen about 2,000 people die from the virus, some 12 percent of the population is Muslim. In Guinea and Sierra Leone, the figure rises to more than half. Saudi authorities have turned down about 7,000 requests for hajj visas from the three countries because of Ebola concerns, according to the United Nations.
The hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, is a religious requirement for all able-bodied Muslims and draws more than 3 million travelers from 160 countries each year. It is one of the largest mass gatherings in the world, and the risk of outbreaks is considerable as extreme heat, physical exhaustion and crowded accommodations can lead to the rapid spread of disease. The highly infectious Ebola virus is transmitted through bodily fluids.
Acting Saudi Minister of Health Adel bin Mohamed Faqih visited several hospitals and health care centers in Mecca and surrounding cities on Wednesday. “Thankfully, the health status of all pilgrims is reassuring,” he said in a news release.
Saudi officials have ramped up screening precautions at airports and have nearly doubled the number of health personnel at medical checkpoints. The health ministry said Thursday it has teamed up with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to avoid a possible outbreak at the event.
Saudi Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Mirghalani said ample precautionary measures had been taken.
"All pilgrims arriving through the 15 entry points had to fill in an application to tell us where they have been over the past 21 days, since that's the incubation period for Ebola,” he said.
The Saudi Ministry of Health has launched a mobile app for visitors to download and stay abreast of the latest health alerts, the locations of the nearest health care facilities, and other medical tips. It includes a live Twitter feed providing information during the hajj, which takes most users seven days to complete.
But few pilgrims seemed concerned about the risk of Ebola infection. Only a handful of people wore protective masks while circling the Kaaba, the black stone structure toward which Muslims face when they pray, Reuters reported.
So far no Ebola cases have been confirmed in Saudi Arabia, but other viral hemorrhagic fevers have been detected in the country, according to the Health Ministry. In August, a Saudi man who had Ebola-like symptoms after returning from a business trip to Liberia was treated at a hospital in the Saudi city of Jeddah. Later testing appeared negative.
Still, the challenges are immense in managing one of humanity’s largest mass journeys. Saudi Arabia offers free health care to all pilgrims, many of whom have traveled from remote corners of the world and devoted considerable savings to the trip. Airborne diseases such as pneumonia are the leading cause of hospitalization during the hajj, according to Yasser Mandourah, director of the intensive care services at the Riyadh Military Hospital.
The Ebola scare comes amid the backdrop of a rising number of cases of Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), a virus that was first identified in Saudi Arabia and has killed more than 300 people, mostly in Jeddah, a coastal city 50 miles from Mecca. That disease continues to spread, according to the latest WHO statistics, but the organization said that “the overall risk for visitors to acquire MERS infection appears to be low.”