Hajj 2016: how to stay healthy

The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world and is performed at least once in every Muslim's lifetime. The timing of the pilgrimage is based on the Islamic lunar calendar and this year will be held around 9 -14th September 2016. Every year the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health publishes health information and advice for people intending to perform Hajj.

With up to two million pilgrims performing Hajj each year, this huge congregation of people brings with it many health and safety risks. One of the biggest health risks is the rapid spread of disease and infection amongst so many people. Respiratory infections, such as cold and flu viruses, are common, as are gastrointestinal infections which can cause diarrhoea. MERS-CoV is a severe lung infection that is specific to the Middle East and is easily spread amongst large crowds.

The Ministry strongly recommends that certain people do not perform Hajj this year:

  • Anyone over 65 years of age
  • Pregnant women
  • Children under 12 years of age
  • Anyone with a chronic disease such as heart, kidney or lung disease or diabetes
  • Anyone undergoing treatment for cancer or with a poor immune system.

Vaccinations

Anyone performing Hajj should arrange for a travel health risk assessment with a healthcare professional such as a doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Many travel clinics provide services specifically for Hajj pilgrims. You should ensure that all your childhood vaccinations and boosters are up to date. You will need additional travel vaccinations against diseases such as Hepatitis A and typhoid.

In order to obtain a travel visa to enter Saudi Arabia all adults and children over the age of two years will need to produce a certificate of vaccination against meningococcal meningitis. This must have been issued at least 10 days before your entry to the country. Certificates can remain valid for up to eight years, depending on which vaccine you have been given.

Simple hygiene rules

Getting the right vaccinations is essential for keeping you healthy during Hajj. But some simple hygiene rules can also help protect you, and other pilgrims, from many of the circulating viruses and bacteria:

  • Thoroughly wash your hands on a regular basis, especially after coughing or sneezing.
  • Disinfectant hand gels are convenient and practical
  • Use disposable tissues when coughing or sneezing and dispose after use
  • Avoid hand contact with nose, mouth and eyes
  • Wear a facemask, which will need to be regularly replaced
  • Avoid direct contact with people showing signs of illness
  • Practice good personal hygiene and avoid contact with animals
  • Practice good food and water safety - only drink bottled water and avoid raw, undercooked or unpasteurised foods.

Malaria

The risk of malaria is highest in the countryside surrounding the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and Taif, with cases peaking between September and January. The risk is relatively low in the cities themselves, but many pilgrims will travel between cities where the risk will increase. Travel during daylight hours and in air-conditioned, enclosed vehicles will minimise contact with mosquitoes. Bite avoidance measures, including the use of DEET sprays are recommended. Anyone staying overnight in these rural areas is recommended to take anti-malarial medication.

Personal Safety and further information

The Middle East can be a politically volatile part of the world, with armed conflicts and terrorism posing a real risk to personal safety. There are many sources of information to help you stay safe during Hajj. British Muslims intending to make the pilgrimage can visit the Home Office advice page for Saudi Arabia as well as The Council for British Hajjis.

Detailed travel health information for Saudi Arabia is provided to Patient by FitForTravel.

Always seek medical advice on potential health risks before travelling abroad. Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms after returning from abroad should see their doctor. 

Michael qualified as a pharmacist in 2000 and joined the Patient authoring team in 2016. Michael has over 15 years' experience working in community pharmacy and 5 years' experience as a medical information pharmacist, providing support on clinical, legal and regulatory issues, with special interests in travel medicine and pharmacy law. For five years he has worked as a knowledge assessor for BTEC Level 3 Diploma in pharmaceutical science and as a training facilitator for pre-registration pharmacists. Michael is a member of a pharmacy advisory panel and a multi-disciplinary steering group for the development of clinical resources for healthcare professionals.