The Health Ministry has warned that 75 percent of Indonesia’s prospective hajj pilgrims are highly susceptible to a deadly new virus from Saudi Arabia, prompting calls for the elderly and frail to be prevented from going to Mecca in October.
Fidiansjah, the head of the ministry’s Hajj Health Center, said over the weekend as quoted by Tempo.co that the elderly and those with chronic health problems were the most vulnerable to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV.
He estimated that nearly 50 percent of hajj hopefuls were over the age 60 while 25 percent had conditions that increased their susceptibility to the virus, such as diabetes, hypertension or heart disease.
He said that Saudi health authorities had recommended that the elderly not undertake the hajj this year, but that this would be difficult to implement since the average age of those preparing to embark from Indonesia was around 50.
Instead, Fidiansjah said, the Health Ministry would focus on communicating to persons at risk regarding how they could avoid contracting the often fatal viral infection while in Saudi Arabia.
These efforts would involve teaching the pilgrims about warning signs and symptoms of the respiratory disease as well as how to protect themselves while in large crowds, how to eat healthily and how to stay hydrated.
Since no inoculation against MERS-CoV is available yet, 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 keep them from catching flu and thus protect them from the dangers of coronavirus [by maintaining their general health],” Fidiansjah said.
Bachrul Hayat, the secretary general of the Religious Affairs Ministry, said that his office was working closely with the Health Ministry on keeping this year’s batch of 168,800 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 very 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, the 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 numbers of other people,” Tallis said last month, 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 go to Saudi Arabia.
“The government must be responsible for the well-being of the pilgrims,” Ma’aruf Amin, the MUI chairman, said on Sunday as quoted by Tempo.co.
“So if the risks appear to be too great, then it’s better not to let them go.”
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 hajj candidates waiting for their turn to go on the pilgrimage, the government says it is focusing more on protecting people when they are in Saudi Arabia.
Emil Agustiono, an epidemiologist and the secretary of the Health Ministry’s National Zoonosis Committee, previously told the Globe that face masks could help.