26 September 2013

​NSW Health is urging people travelling to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to monitor the latest health advice during their trip, as new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) continue to be reported from Saudi Arabia.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard, Director of the Communicable Disease Branch said that MERS coronavirus is a new virus that causes a severe respiratory disease.

“Since mid August this year 37 new MERS-CoV cases have been reported, including 34 from Saudi Arabia and three from Qatar,” Dr Sheppeard said. “This brings the number of laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS coronavirus to 130 since September 2012. Unfortunately 58 of these people have died.”  

Most cases have occurred in vulnerable people with underlying conditions that may make them more likely to have complications from respiratory infections.<

“While there have been no cases of MERS-CoV in Australia, there is a risk of people contracting the infection while in Saudi Arabia and then returning to Australia.”

More than 3 million Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage to the Hajj including thousands of Australians. This year the Hajj is estimated to fall in mid October.

NSW Health recommends that anyone travelling to the Hajj should take the following precautions:

  • consider wearing a mask in large gatherings
  • practice good hand hygiene by regularly washing hands while overseas
  • use hand sanitiser regularly
  • avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections
  • avoid close contact with live farm or wild animals.
  • register your travel plans on the Australian smartraveller website
  • monitor health warnings and updates while travelling.
  • This advice is particularly important for people over the age of 65, those with chronic diseases, pregnant women and children under the age of 12, and is in addition to the usual health recommendations that are made for pilgrims.

    “The gathering of such a large population from around the world in one area increases the risk of spread of MERS-CoV, which is why monitoring relevant travel advice throughout your pilgrimage is so important”, Dr Sheppeard said.

    “We would like to advise people who experience fever, cough or breathing difficulties within 14 days of their return from the Middle East to seek immediate medical attention from their GP or local Emergency Department and mention that they’ve recently visited the region” Dr Sheppeard said.

    There is no vaccine to prevent MERS-CoV disease.

    The NSW Health Hajj Traveller Factsheet can be found at  http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Factsheets/Hajj-Travel-Advice.pdf

    The NSW Health advice on staying healthy when travelling overseas can be found at
    http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/Staying-healthy-when-travelling-overseas.aspx

    In addition, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has updated the Smartraveller advice for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to include information about the outbreak. DFAT has also issued a bulletin for Pilgrims travelling to the Hajj this year, including information about the risk of MERS coronavirus. 

    Information on MERS-CoV for pilgrims has been distributed to Australian based travel agents who are authorised to book for the Hajj.

    ​​​