Dubai, UAE: Pilgrims who are planning to travel to Mecca are being advised to act soon and get the vaccine that protects against pneumococcal diseases.
Religious gatherings such as Haj provide ideal crowded conditions for the transmission of infection and outbreaks of some diseases, health experts said.
Despite this, the understanding of pneumococcal diseases – which can lead to ailments such as acute respiratory and infections, and meningitis – and the importance of adult vaccination in the UAE and other GCC countries is very low, said Dr Ashraf El Houfi, a consultant in the infection-control unit at Dubai Hospital.
“This is a major cause of concern,” he said. “There is a need to spread mass awareness about the issue.”
Pneumococcal pneumonia, a lung infection, is the most common serious form of pneumococcal disease and is the most common cause of people being taken to hospital during Haj.
Sufferers account for about four in ten of all hospital admissions, said Dr El Houfi.
While mandatory vaccines for Haj pilgrims include the seasonal influenza vaccine and the meningococcal vaccine, Dr El Houfi highly recommends those heading to Mecca in September to also get the pneumococcal vaccine – available in many hospitals and health clinics – at least four weeks before they travel.
Haj, which this year is expected to fall between September 21 and 26, is the largest annual mass gathering in the world, attracting between two and three million Muslims from more than 180 countries. Almost 5,000 pilgrims from the UAE made the trip to Saudi Arabia last year.
Factors that contribute to the spread of the pneumococcal disease bacteria include the proximity between pilgrims, shared accommodation, and those who avoid simple preventive measures, such as “cough etiquette” or basic hand hygiene practices, said Dr El Houfi.
Anyone can get a pneumococcal disease, but children under the age of 2, adults over 65 years of age and those with chronic illnesses such as lung, heart, liver, or kidney disease, are more at risk.
Pneumococcal disease can be contracted quickly and without warning. Symptoms can vary from person to person but can include fever and chills, a cough, rapid or difficulty breathing, chest pain and drowsiness.
Dr Mohamed Rafique, a specialist in respiratory medicine and assistant medical director at Prime Hospital in Dubai, said the bacteria spread from person to person via respiratory droplets.
“So if an infected person coughs or sneezes in proximity to other people, the other people may become infected.
“If a person has a weakened immune system, the bacteria have a better chance of moving from the throat to the lungs, blood, sinuses, middle ear, or the brain.”
Because religious festivals attract a large number of people from various locations they also increase the risk of infectious diseases being transmitted between pilgrims and the local population, said Dr Rafique.
“This is because people from varied geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds congregate in proximity which can easily lead to quick spread of infection,” he said.
Dr Rafique said pneumococcal diseases are responsible for a considerable number of preventable deaths and illnesses in the Middle East.
“Yet, pneumococcal disease is preventable,” he said. “There is definite lack of awareness among people in Gulf countries. They often do not give enough importance to the disease and prevention.
“People need to understand that there is a very easy solution to avoid the disease.”
© The NationalJul 2015