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Undeterred by risk of coronavirus infection, pilgrims pour into Makkah


An Asian wears a nose and mouth mask on her way to the Grand Mosque in the Holy City of Makkah in Saudi Arabia on May 27. Photo – AFP

Jeddah: Pilgrims from around the world are pouring into the Holy City of Makkah in Saudi Arabia, undeterred by the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) MERS virus which has killed 284 people in the kingdom.

"We have received warnings by authorities in our country about MERS and were informed of the importance of taking precautions," said 45-year-old Abdullah, a pilgrim from Malaysia.

Wearing a mask, Abdullah said he applies disinfectants as he enters the Grand Mosque in Makkah. "God will protect me," he said.

More expected to arrive
More pilgrims are expected to arrive with the approach of the holy month of Ramadan, which starts late in June, and sees hundreds of thousands descend on Makkah for umrah.

But numbers will rocket when the faithful arrive for the Haj pilgrimage, which takes place this year in October.

Local authorities in Makkah are distributing leaflets and brochures containing advice on hygiene and measures to minimise the risk of infection by the mysterious MERS.

Tunisian pilgrim, Safia Bin Mohammed shrugged off the fears of MERS.   "I am not afraid," she said.

"It was not easy to come here, so I couldn't have postponed my pilgrimage," said the 56-year-old woman, insisting she was "complying with the medical precautions".

Preemptive measure
In a preemptive measure to avoid a potential importation of the virus, which has reached more than a dozen countries and as far afield as the United States, Tunisian authorities are advising their nationals to postpone their plans for pilgrimage this year.

The cases outside the Middle East relate to people who became ill while in the region, with some involving pilgrims travelling to Makkah.

Last year, five million pilgrims visited the kingdom for umrah and Haj.  

This year, the number of umrah pilgrims has reached 4.8 million since the start of the lunar calendar in October, according to official statistics.

Fears mounted in April when several cases of infection were registered in the western city of Jeddah after MERS had been largely confined to Eastern Province, where it first appeared in April 2012.

The port city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, which lies 80 kilometres (51 miles) north of Makkah, is the main entry point for pilgrims.  

But Saudi Arabia's Haj Ministry dedicated specifically to the annual pilgrimage has not yet taken any special measures related to MERS.

The coronavirus first appeared in Saudi Arabia in April 2012, and the kingdom remains the worst-hit country, accounting for the bulk of a global  death toll.

MERS has now killed 284 people out of 691 infected in Saudi Arabia since it
first appeared.

No special screening
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has so far not advised special screening at points of entry, nor does it currently recommend any travel or trade restrictions, including for the pilgrimage.

Research has suggested that the virus has been quite common in camels for at least the past 20 years.

On Wednesday, researchers said they have found the first direct evidence that MERS jumps directly from camels to humans.

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