- POSTED: 13 Sep 2013 23:25
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Indonesia's first group of haj pilgrims has departed for Saudi Arabia, but unlike previous years, a deadly new virus known as the MERS coronavirus threatens the health of millions of Muslim pilgrims.
JAKARTA: Indonesia's first group of haj pilgrims has departed for Saudi Arabia, leaving from 10 airports across the country.
But unlike previous years, a deadly new virus from Saudi Arabia known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus is threatening the health of millions of Muslim pilgrims.
168,000 Indonesian pilgrims are heading to the holy Muslim city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
According to Indonesian Health Ministry estimates, 75 per cent of them are susceptible to the deadly MERS virus.
Half of these pilgrims are over the age of 60.
And a quarter of them have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, making them more susceptible to contracting the MERS virus.
Medical specialists are struggling to understand the deadly virus and for now there is still no vaccine.
To date, 100 people in the Middle East have contracted the virus, which experts believe originated from bats.
Dr Slamet, the director of disease control and environmental health in the Indonesian Health Ministry, said: "Since the MERS coronavirus was found in Saudi Arabia, the Indonesian government was aware of the problem.
“It's not only the health of haj pilgrims that we need to worry about, but also umrah pilgrims and many of our migrant workers. The possibility of human-to human transfer is high, so the government has alerted our provincial health offices as well as our integrated health service units."
The MERS virus is considered a cousin of the SARS virus, which erupted in Asia in 2003, killing 9 per cent of its victims.
Almost half of all who have contracted the coronavirus have died.
In light of this, health officials have briefed the accompanying medical team as well as pilgrims on what everyone should be sensitive to in terms of warning signs and symptoms.
Aside from eating healthy food and staying hydrated, pilgrims were briefed on how they can protect themselves while moving in large crowds.
Latifah, a haj pilgrim, said: "As a pilgrim, I'm very worried because I heard it spreads through one's eyes."
Another haj pilgrim, Sugeng, said: "I'll accept my fate and try to keep my stamina, eat and rest well.
“Although we are carrying out a religious duty, we need to rest so we will be ready when we need to carry out our most important haj rites."
Pilgrims have also been given face masks and some medication to treat light ailments.
While the government has sponsored mandatory meningitis vaccinations, pilgrims have been advised to get their own flu and pneumonia shots.
Monitoring returning pilgrims has also been made a priority, and health authorities have installed thermal scanners at airports to detect fever among pilgrims.
Health officials will also measure pilgrims' temperatures on their way back to the haj dormitories.
Those showing flu symptoms within two weeks of returning home are being urged to report to the nearest health clinic.