“And proclaim to the people the Hajj [pilgrimage]; they will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant pass – that they may witness benefits for themselves and mention the name of Allah on known days over what He has provided for them of [sacrificial] animals. So eat of them and feed the miserable and poor”. (Qur’an 22 [al-Hajj]:27-28).
As evidenced in the above verse from the Holy Qur’an, Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca attracts millions of Muslims each year. Mentally, spiritually, and physically challenging, the once in a lifetime trip for many pilgrims requires a tremendous amount of homework. The need for early and adequate preparation is vital in order to limit the hardships and difficulties faced by the Muslims, including awareness of health, wellness, and safety issues.
However, given the sheer volume of Hujjaj (pilgrims) visiting Mecca every year and the congestion the numbers create, at ceremonies, accommodation sites, and public transport, it is inevitable for many to encounter some type of communicable disease or suffer an injury. The threat of Meningitis, Diabetes (due to the physical demands of Hajj) and Hepatitis (spread by barbers using the same razors repeatedly) usually looms large. For instance, the ‘Saudi Ministry of Health Requirements for Pilgrims’ mandates pilgrims to “produce a certificate of vaccination with the quadrivalent (ACYW135) vaccine against meningitis issued not more than 3 years previously and not less than 10 days before arrival in Saudi Arabia.”
The British Hajj Delegation
Founded in 1998, the Association of British Hujjaj established the British Hajj Delegation. The British Hajj Delegation “includes a team of doctors and counselors, who will offer initial treatment of illnesses and injuries, as well as counseling support and advice. They will be accompanied by Muslim staff from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office”. The Delegation sets up camp in Mecca during the hajj period and provides dedicated services to British pilgrims, including a full range of medical services, safety facilities, and consular support services. According to the Muslim Council of Britain, the Delegation is mandated to “advise (pilgrims) how to transfer money, provide contact details for local lawyers and hospitals, arrange for a next of kin to be told of an accident or a death and advise on procedures, (and) give advice on UK passport and visa matters”.
According to the British Hajj Delegation website, “Each year up to eight Doctors volunteer to take part in the British Hajj Delegation’s medical team. The Doctors are all General Practitioners (GP’s), fully qualified and practice in the United Kingdom. Furthermore they are all registered with the British Medical Association (BMA), the body responsible for overseeing medical practice in the UK. The team of doctors consists of both male and female doctors. The clinic in Mecca is set up in hotel rooms. They are very basic and are not intended to replicate a GP’s surgery in the UK. The clinic is usually open for around 14 to 16 hours every day, leading to the actual days of Hajj and again for a few days after Hajj. The clinic is then relocated to Mina during the actual days of Hajj”.
During the hajj of 2009, “there were approximately 23,000 British pilgrims performing Hajj and in total almost 3,000 patients were supported within the three weeks”. This year the Delegation will be catering to approximately 25,000 British pilgrims who are scheduled to perform the pilgrimage over a two-to-four week period. The UK is the first non-Muslim country to send a delegation of this kind to Mecca, Saudi Arabia and since 2001 the group has been led by Lord Adam Patel.
The Delegation carries out over 3,000 consultations during the Hajj season, with the assistance of volunteer medical practitioners. Incidentally, these GP’s are aware of, and understand the symptoms and diseases that are particular to their fellow citizens. The team has been so successful that in one case it managed to convince the Saudi medical authorities not to amputate a British pilgrim’s leg because of an infection and instead insisted on a course of drugs that removed the life-threatening contagion. On another occasion, a female British pilgrim was found unconscious when a doctor from the delegation went to her tent. Whilst waiting for the Saudi authorities to respond, he was able to stabilize the patient and prevent her death. Over the past 10 years, the Delegation has helped thousands of sick and saved thousands of lives, significantly reducing mortality, amputation, and severe injury rates.
In 2010, without any formal consultation, the Delegation was terminated, despite the fact that this initiative is sustained on the services provided by volunteers.
The Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) review in March 2010 “recognized that Saudi medical facilities for pilgrims had improved significantly over the last eleven years”. With a year on year improvement, the Saudi medical facilities are now of an “extremely high standard and able to accommodate basic to serious cases with the resources needed”. It is for this reason that the decision was taken to discontinue the medical element of the Delegation and strengthen the consular element to support Hajjis in Mecca instead. “This decision will also encourage people to exploit Hajj travelers once again” according to Rashid Mogradia of the Council of British Hajjis. He said, “For a number of years we have been working closely with the FCO’s British Hajj Delegation, Department of Business and the CAA to raise awareness of rogue and unscrupulous tour operators exploiting travelers and deliberately targeting the Muslim community by claiming they specialize in Hajj travel”.
The cost of the Delegation is almost insignificant when compared to the benefit the British Hajj Delegation provides and the amount it saves the state which is (according to one estimate) more than “£1.6 million per annum”. When one looks at the price the British National Health Service bears, the cost of the Delegation—£120,000—seems trivial. When a pilgrim returns ill s/he is in need of (several) GP visits, perhaps hospital consultations and in numerous cases, inpatient readmissions. The risk to family and friends of contracting any illnesses bought back by the pilgrim and the associated costs in treating them too only adds to the expense. Economic productivity also endures a loss due to employee absenteeism and the company having to pay for their sick leave.
So what now for the British pilgrims?
As they say “the show must go on,” and this is exactly what the volunteers are doing. With just days away from the 2011 hajj a group of doctors will be on hand during the two-to-four week period to provide medical support at their clinic in Mina. Providing ‘on the ground’ advice and basic GP treatment, the Delegation will continue with or without government funding. No matter how much the Saudi medical facilities have improved, there will still be a year on year demand for medical attention as the number of visitors to Mecca increases.
In the meantime, The Council of British Hajjis has launched an e-petition on their website that will be put forward for debate in Parliament once 100,000 signatures are firmed. They ask “the British Government to support British citizens undertaking the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by sending a Medical Team and volunteers with the appropriate supplies to support and treat around 25,000 British pilgrims & thereby reduce illness and burden on the NHS on return”.
The Hajj Delegation is currently supported by the British Muslim Community and the Council of British Hajjis.
Sign the e-Petition and support Muslims going to Hajj