Hajj medical team for UK pilgrims scrapped – Move due to reduced demand and better Saudi healthcare rather than cost-cutting, Foreign Office says.
The Foreign Office has denied scrapping its medical delegation to the Islamic annual pilgrimage as part of a cost-cutting drive, saying it made the decision because of a declining demand for the service and an improvement in local healthcare facilities.
More than 25,000 Britons are due to travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj in the next few weeks and groups representing them fear that the absence of a dedicated team from the UK will have far-reaching effects on individuals, their communities and work colleagues, and even the NHS.
For the past 11 years the Foreign Office has paid for the flights and accommodation of about eight GPs, who have treated thousands of people over three weeks. They are not paid for their work, taking annual leave or privately funding other doctors to cover their surgery work. The medical team treated 5,967 Britons in 2007 and 2,504 last year.
Dr Mohammed Jiva, who has been part of the medical team for five years, said: “Although the Saudi authorities provide healthcare facilities during the hajj period, we have been aware of concerns related to access to healthcare as all the pilgrims from throughout the world would rely on the Saudi facilities.
“There is no home-visiting service equivalent to what the British hajj delegation provided for those pilgrims too ill to travel and reflecting on a major incident a few years ago which resulted in mortalities as well as amputations and severe injuries, the Saudi facilities did not have the manpower or facilities to look after these pilgrims in the community. The delegation undertook clinic and home visits to support and change dressings whilst the pilgrims completed their hajj.”
According to a paper published in the Lancet medical journal last November, the mass gathering of pilgrims from more than 160 countries increases the risk of food-borne diseases, meningococcal outbreaks, heat exhaustion and respiratory illnesses. Crowd densities can reach seven individuals per square metre during the hajj.
The paper said that results from a study suggested the average pilgrim had a disproportionate number of pre-existing health problems and did not have “adequate health literacy” or advanced pre-hajj healthcare.
The authors said that transmissions of infectious disease during mass gatherings had a global effect when visitors returned home and that the hajj contributed to a global outbreak of cholera in the 19th century.
A Foreign Office spokesman said it would provide consular assistance, but no medical advice, to British pilgrims.
“The decision to not include a medical team within the delegation is not a cost-cutting exercise. In the 11 years from when the first delegation of British doctors attended the hajj, we have witnessed a year-on-year improvement in the healthcare services provided by the Saudi authorities. The medical facilities are now of an extremely high standard and able to accommodate basic to serious cases and the Saudi authorities have assured us they have ample capability and resources to provide full medical facilities which British hajjis will be able to use.
“This brings our support for British hajjis into line with the support we provide for British nationals at other events. The FCO does not provide medical services at any other event involving large numbers of British nationals.”
About 4 million pilgrims are expected for this year’s hajj and the Saudi ministry of health has established 21 hospitals to provide free healthcare.