With many people traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah as part of their religious obligations during the holy month of Ramadan, Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) has highlighted a number of simple steps that pilgrims can take to ensure they are safeguarded against infectious diseases.

Senior Consultant in Emergency Medicine at HMC, Dr Saad Al Nuaimi, said:

Pilgrims should remember to take health precautions prior to travel, during their journey, as well as post-travel…respiratory illnesses including sinuses, throat, airways, and lung infections caused due to viruses, are the most common kinds of illnesses contracted during Umrah as they spread rapidly among crowds.

To protect against these infections, pilgrims should follow simple ‘cough hygiene’ precautions. This includes use of tissue paper when coughing or sneezing and ensuring used tissues are disposed of carefully, washing hands frequently with soap and water, and avoiding hand contact with the eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible.’

However, Al Nuaimi recommends seeking urgent medical advice if breathing problems are experienced. He noted that if certain precautions are taken, pilgrims can remain safe from contracting the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), a major respiratory illness of increasing concern in the region. Dr Al Nuaimi said:

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 health care provider to review the risks and determine if Umrah should be made. Dr Al Nuaimi said:

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 diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart, kidney, or with respiratory problems or immune deficiency.’

While performing Umrah, it is important to remember that daytime temperatures can be very high, and many heat-related illnesses such as severe sunburn, dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur. Dr Al Nuaimi said:

To avoid such illnesses, pilgrims should ensure they remain well hydrated, drinking plenty of clean water, preferably bottled or boiled and cooled water. Other preventive steps include, applying high protection sunscreen (at least SPF 15) regularly, and carrying umbrellas to shade away sunlight.’

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

Pilgrims can assure their safety by avoiding peak times to circumambulate and choosing times when the number of people is likely to be lesser.’

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

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

Other useful precautions that may come in handy 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.

Dr Al Nuaimi stressed that upon return, if any pilgrim develops an illness and notices worsening symptoms, especially a fever that is higher than 38 degrees Celsius, cough or breathing problems, then the person should seek immediate medical assistance from any urgent care center. Remember to mention the Umrah visit to the treating physician, Dr Al Nuaimi added.