Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand mosque in Mecca during the annual Haj pilgrimage. Photo: Reuters
NSW Health has warned Muslim Australians planning on making the pilgrimage to the Haj in Saudi Arabia later this year they could be at risk of contracting a dangerous new virus.
Vicky Sheppeard, the director of the Communicable Disease Branch within NSW Health, said the gathering of more than 3 million people in one place drastically increases the risk of disease.
"We would like to advise people who experience fever, cough or breathing difficulties within 14 days of their return from the Middle East to seek immediate medical attention from their GP or local Emergency Department and mention that they’ve recently visited the region,” Dr Sheppeard said.
The Saudi ministry of health has warned that people aged above 65 or under 12, people with chronic conditions and pregnant women should cancel their trips.
Saudi Arabia is the centre of an outbreak of the deadly new virus, named Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, that is similar to the SARS virus that killed hundreds of people world-wide in the early 2000s and infected thousands more.
So far the World Health Organisation says there have been 94 laboratory-confirmed and 16 probable cases of human infection with the virus, and approximately half of the people who have contracted it have died. They say the Saudi Government is having trouble tackling the virus because foreign drug patents were preventing researchers from investigating it.
Australian health experts have previously warned they are concerned about the high death rate, and any potential that the novel new virus could mutate.
The head of the clinical research team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Professor Robert Booy, told Fairfax that the more infections that occurred, the more likely the virus was to mutate.
''The people who are getting the virus at the moment are dying of pneumonia, and one in two of them are dying,'' he said.
In October, he will conduct a study involving pilgrims from at least half a dozen countries, testing whether face masks would help prevent them from getting sick.
Professor Charles Watson from the faculty of health sciences at Curtin University said it was possible the virus could fizzle out before the Haj, if it was not strongly contagious.
''If the epidemic was still continuing I think we would strongly advise Australian Muslims who have travelled there to have a medical check on their return,'' he said.