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Indonesia to educate pilgrims about MERS risk

Indonesia’s Health and Religious Affairs Ministries are working together to ensure that the elderly and frail are immune from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus or MERS-CoV during the upcoming Haj season in October.
“The Ministry of Health will focus on communicating to individuals at risk how they could avoid contracting the often fatal viral infection, while in Saudi Arabia,” a report quoted Fidiansa, head of the Ministry’s Haj Health Center, as saying.
He estimated that nearly half of those who intend to perform Haj are over the age of 60, while 25 percent have health conditions that increase their susceptibility to the virus, hypertension or heart disease.
Fidiansa noted that the Saudi health authorities had earlier recommended that the elderly and frail refrain from undertaking Haj this year but that this would be hard to implement since the average age of those preparing to embark from Indonesia is around 50.
Instead, Fidiansa said, the Indonesian Health Ministry plans on communicating to persons at risk how they can avoid contracting the often viral infection, while in the holy cities.
The efforts would involve teaching pilgrims about warning signs and symptoms of the respiratory disease as well as how to protect themselves while in large crowds, how to eat healthy and how to stay hydrated.
He said that since inoculation against MERS-CoV is not yet available, the elderly and those with chronic ailments or pre-existing medical conditions will be advised to get flu and pneumonia shots before leaving.
“At the very least these vaccinations will help protect them against catching the flu and thus safeguard them from the dangers of coronavirus, by maintaining their general health,” Fidiansa said.
Bachul Hayat, secretary general of the Religious Affairs Ministry, added that his office was working closely with the Ministry of Health on keeping this year’s 168,000 would-be pilgrims safe from the new virus. “We have to stay alert to ensure that our pilgrims don’t contract this virus,” he said, noting that with a fatality rate of 50 percent, it was considered dangerous.
A total of 94 cases have been reported since the virus was first detected in April 2012, with 47 fatalities to date, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

Graham Tallis, team leader for communicable diseases at the World Health Organization’s Indonesia Office, previously told the Jakarta Globe that elderly pilgrims faced a high risk of infection, although the virus did not appear to be as deadly as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreaks centered in Hong Kong and southern China in 2002-2003 or the global avian influenza epidemic that ran from 2005 to 2011.
“The danger to pilgrims is that of being in close contact with large crowds,” Tallis said, while noting that MERS-CoV appeared to be much less susceptible to person-to-person transmission than SARS.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the country’s highest Islamic authority, has called on the government not to allow people in the high-risk category to travel to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage.
“The government must be responsible for the well-being of pilgrims,” Ma’aruf Amin, MUI chairman, was quoted by online paper as saying Sunday. “So if the risks appear to be too great, then it’s better not to let them travel,” he said.
He also urged the government to better inform the public regarding the characteristics of the virus and the statistics associated with infections and fatalities to date. That way, he said, pilgrims would be in a better position to evaluate the risks of making the trip.
But with a 15-year backlog of Haj candidates waiting for their turn to go on the pilgrimage, the government said it is focusing more on protecting people when they are in Saudi Arabia.
Emil Agustiono, an epidemiologist and secretary of the Health Ministry’s National Zoonosis committee, suggested that masks could help.

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