CAIRO (AP) â€” As millions of Muslims prepare to make the annual Hajj to Mecca this January, Saudi Arabia is adopting stricter measures to stop a new and startling spread of polio across the region, Saudi and United Nations officials said Saturday.
The country that hosts the annual Islamic pilgrimage will now immunise â€” on the spot â€” all children aged 15 or under who travel to Mecca from 19 countries where the virus is found â€” mostly from the Africa continent.
A top Saudi health official said Ethiopia, Eritrea and Angola were added this month to the list of “at risk” countries as the government cranked up preparations for the influx of more than two million pilgrims through air, sea and land ports across the country.
“The hajj period is important because of the large number of movements of people from around the world into one location,” said Bruce Aylward, coordinator of the Global Polio Eradication Programming for the UN World Health Organisation.
“But this year it is especially important because a lot of the people travelling to Saudi come from polio-infected countries,” he told the Associated Press.
Tens of thousands of visitors to Saudi holy shrines are from African countries with large Muslim populations, including Nigeria, where a major polio outbreak two years ago spread the crippling virus to other countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The infected countries include neighbouring Chad, nearby Sudan and Saudi Arabia and Yemen where polio had been eradicated.
“The disease and its spread from the endemic countries compelled us to take various tougher steps,” said Dr Yagob Al Mazrou, Saudi’s assistant deputy minister for preemptive medicine.
Saudi authorities regularly run vaccination programmes ahead of the annual Hajj, which draws faithful Muslims from around the world, and the minor “omra” pilgrimage, which is conducted at any time of the year.
But this year will be the first when all pilgrims under age 16 must prove they have been vaccinated against polio to receive a Saudi entry visa. What’s more, Saudi health officials said, each person under 16 still will be required to take an oral vaccine upon entering the country as a precaution.
Aylward, the WHO official, said more than 1,050 children have been reported paralysed by polio this year alone, most in the massive Nigerian outbreak after hardline Islamic clerics called for a boycott of the polio vaccine.
Many parents stopped vaccinating children and polio subsequently spread throughout Nigeria and bordering countries.
The virus later jumped to Sudan, from where thousands catch ferries across the Red Sea to work or pray in Saudi Arabia. Also affected were Yemen, on the tip of the Saudi peninsula, and people as far away as Indonesia, which has reported 219 cases this year and announced a national immunisation drive to stop the spread of the disease.
In Africa, where the WHO and the African Union launched a subsequent immunisation programme across 23 African countries, the number of cases of children being paralysed has dropped dramatically.
Saudi Arabia â€” which attracts not only pilgrims but millions of workers from African nations, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia â€” saw a limited outbreak of the disease, with three cases being reported this year.
But its highly developed health facilities and vigilance in immunising its citizens prevented the outbreak from spreading.
The same can’t be said for its impoverished southern neighbour, Yemen, where at least 415 children have been paralysed and at least 10,000 infected so far this year.
All able-bodied Muslims must perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford it. The last Hajj drew a record 2.56 million people. The rituals take place over three days, but most pilgrims stay for five days or more.