Safe and Healthy Hajj 2012
Hajj 2012—Staying Healthy in the Crowd
The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is among the largest mass gatherings in the world. In 2012, it takes place October 24–27. It draws about 3 million Muslims from around the world, and more than 11,000 Americans make the pilgrimage each year. Because of the number of people crowded into a relatively small space, mass gatherings such as the Hajj are associated with unique health risks. If you are planning to perform Hajj this year—or attend any other large gathering—follow these tips to stay safe and healthy.
Being caught in a human stampede is a major fear of many people attending a mass gathering. Stampedes at previous Hajj events have injured or killed hundreds, most recently in 2006. However, the Saudi government has spent more than $25 billion to engineer the Hajj environment to thin crowds and minimize this risk. To further protect yourself, try to avoid the most densely congested areas and always be aware of the location of emergency exits. Saudi religious authorities have also expanded the times during which certain rituals can be performed, and pilgrims can expect fewer crowds if they perform these rituals during nonpeak hours.
Temperatures in Mecca can exceed 100°F in October, and heat exhaustion and heatstroke are leading causes of illness during Hajj. Pilgrims should drink plenty of water (bottled), wear sunscreen, rest, and seek shade as much as possible. Some rituals can be performed at night to avoid daytime heat. Symptoms of heat-related illness can include profuse sweating, chills, headache, dizziness or confusion, and nausea. Travelers who develop these symptoms should move to a cool area and seek medical attention.
Because they bring together large numbers of people from all around the world, mass gatherings such as the Hajj create an ideal environment for spreading infectious diseases. Because outbreaks of meningococcal disease used to be a problem during the Hajj, the Saudi Ministry of Health now requires all pilgrims to receive the meningococcal vaccine, and Hajj visas cannot be issued without proof of vaccination. Polio vaccine is not required for pilgrims from the United States, but it’s best to receive an adult booster before travel. CDC also recommends vaccination against hepatitis A and B and typhoid for travel to Saudi Arabia, and all travelers, regardless of destination, should be up-to-date on routine vaccines (such as measles and pertussis) and should receive an annual flu shot.
Since not all infectious diseases can be prevented by vaccines, you should also wash your hands often, sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve (if no tissue is around), and keep your distance from people who look sick. Diarrhea is common during Hajj, so eat only food that is cooked and served hot and drink only beverages from sealed containers. Men are required to shave their heads after Hajj, and unclean blades can transmit disease. Male pilgrims should go to officially designated centers to be shaved, where barbers are licensed and use disposable, single-use blades.