With many people traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah as part of their voluntary religious acts of worship during the holy month of Ramadan, Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) is reminding pilgrims to take the necessary steps to ensure they are safeguarded against infectious diseases.

Senior Consultant in Emergency Medicine at HMC, Dr Saad Al Nuaimi, stressed that pilgrims must take health precautions prior to travel, during their journey, and at the end of their trip.

According to Dr Al Nuaimi, among the most common illnesses contracted during Umrah are respiratory illnesses. He said:

These include throat and upper respiratory tract and lung infections which are usually caused by viruses that spread rapidly among crowds.’

To protect against these infections, pilgrims should follow simple ‘cough hygiene’ safety measures such as using tissue paper when coughing or sneezing, in addition to ensuring that used tissues are disposed of carefully. Dr Al Nuaimi said:

Washing hands frequently with soap and water, and avoiding hand contact with the eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible can also be very useful.’

He recommended seeking urgent medical advice if pilgrims experience cough, fever and any breathing problems. Dr Al Nuaimi noted that such precautions are important measures in guarding against contracting the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (Mers-CoV), a major respiratory illness which is a concern in the region. He advised:

The virus has been reported to spread from person to person through extended close contact so it is advisable to avoid direct contact with people who exhibit symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, runny nose, vomiting and diarrhea.’

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that prior to travel, pilgrims should consult a healthcare provider. Dr Al Nuaimi stated:

Certain people may postpone their pilgrimage for their own safety. This includes people aged above 65 years, pregnant women and children under the age of 12 years, or anyone with chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart or kidney disease, or those with respiratory problems or immune deficiency.’

While performing Umrah, it is important to remember that daytime temperatures can be very high, so loss of body fluid through excessive sweating (dehydration) and many heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat syncope, heat exhaustion and even heat stroke can occur. Dr Al Nuaimi advised:

To avoid such illnesses, pilgrims should ensure they remain well hydrated, drinking plenty of clean water during Iftar and Suhoor; preferably bottled or boiled and cooled water. Other preventive steps include regularly applying high protection sunscreen (at least SPF 15), and carrying umbrellas to shade away sunlight. Whenever feasible, it is advisable to do circumambulation (Tawaf) in the evening or at night.’

He added that the risk of trauma and injuries is heightened with the influx of pilgrims to Mecca during Ramadan. He said:

Pilgrims should avoid peak times to circumambulate and chose times when the number of people is likely to be less.’

Another important issue to be aware of is making sure that when men shave their heads after the completion of Umrah, they use clean blades. Dr Al Nuaimi cautioned:

Unclean shaving blades can transmit blood-borne viruses, such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and Human Immuno-deficiency virus. Therefore, pilgrims should never share shaving blades.’

Other useful precautions include carrying medical/first aid kits, which contain plasters, dressings and painkillers in case of emergency, and also taking a good supply of regular medicines, copies of prescriptions, as well as a doctor’s letter that describes the pilgrim’s medical history in detail.

If upon return any pilgrim develops an illness and notices worsening symptoms, especially a fever that is higher than 38 degrees Celsius, a cough or breathing problems, the individual should seek immediate medical assistance from any urgent care center, Dr Al Nuaimi said, adding that the person should inform the treating physician about their Umrah trip.