MECCA, Saudi Arabia — Officials in Saudi Arabia are raising alarm that not enough is being done to prevent Mecca from becoming a route for exporting an often deadly respiratory virus as millions of Muslims from around the world converge on the city to perform pilgrimage at Islam's holiest site.
The calls have taken on greater urgency as Saudi Arabia struggles to contain a surge in infections from the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. The country has seen the most infections worldwide by far — more than 500 since 2012 — and in past weeks the numbers have accelerated with several deaths reported nearly every day and new infections often numbering in the double digits.
So far, Mecca, near the western Red Sea coast, has seen fewer cases than other parts of Saudi Arabia. Since the coronavirus was first discovered in 2012, there have been two annual hajj pilgrimages to the city, and neither saw instances of pilgrims being infected. Most of the cases that have appeared outside Saudi Arabia, including two in the United States — one in Orlando — have been from foreigners returning home from work in Saudi Arabia or from Saudis traveling abroad.
But as the number of cases rises in Saudi Arabia, the concern is that there are not enough precautions being taken in Mecca, an obvious potential hot spot for spreading the disease.
Experts say the Saudi Health Ministry needs to move faster to create more public awareness, promote more aggressive testing in hospitals and take better precautions among medical staff — who have made up a significant proportion of those infected because of improper conditions.
Mecca sees a constant stream of pilgrims throughout the year from around the world, and their numbers swell during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins in late June. The hajj pilgrimage — which Islam says is a duty of all able-bodied Muslims to perform once in their lives — brings even more gigantic crowds: Some 2 million pilgrims from all over the world, packed into close quarters as they visit the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, and other locations in and around Mecca for a period of around five days. This year, hajj starts in early October.
Also, most of the international pilgrims travel to Mecca through the closest international airport, in the coastal city of Jiddah, which has seen far more cases.
Notably, no posters warning of the virus or giving visitors information on how to prevent its spread were visible during a recent visit by an Associated Press reporter through Jiddah airport or at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba.
The Hajj Ministry's website, which many international pilgrims refer to for information, makes no mention of MERS or precautions. The Health Ministry's website, however, advises people over 65, children under 12 and those who are ill to delay their pilgrimage.