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Immunization during Haj to reap major health rewards

Saudi Gazette report

JEDDAH — Saudi authorities have taken all precautions to prevent contagious diseases from spreading during the Haj next month, when nearly 2 million Muslims from all over the world flock to the Kingdom for the annual pilgrimage.

Millions of people from different parts of the world living in a limited area for a number of days or weeks can easily spread infectious diseases and epidemics. These people could carry the contagion to their countries when they travel home, raising grave concerns of global outbreaks. This is where the Saudi government has astutely stepped in with compulsory vaccinations for all pilgrims.

More than two centuries have passed since the first successful vaccine for smallpox was developed. We have come a long way since. Today’s vaccines are among the 21st century’s most successful and cost-effective public health tools for preventing disease and death.

Thanks to immunization programs, more than 30 common infectious diseases have been prevented. Furthermore, vaccines have helped avert long-term disability and an estimated 2.5 million deaths a year.

In Saudi Arabia, vaccinations have helped many. Since the introduction of vaccines, great strides have been made to ensure that the majority of citizens are protected against many debilitating diseases. For instance, 96 percent of Saudi citizens are now vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, Hepatitis B and pertussis. Measles is also at 96 percent now compared to just 8 percent in 1980.

Pilgrims traveling to Haj are given three vaccines: the meningococcal vaccine, which is mandatory for all Haj travelers to protect against meningitis; the seasonal influenza vaccine, which is essential to reduce the risk of flu; and the pneumococcal vaccine, which is required for people with heart, kidney and liver diseases to protect against pneumococcal diseases. All pilgrims are required to get immunized, 14 or more days before arrival in Saudi Arabia.

The meningitis vaccination was made mandatory following outbreaks of the disease in the country. The first post-Haj global outbreak caused by Neisseria meningitides serogroup A was reported in 1987. The epidemic emphasized the potentially high risk of transmission of N. meningitides during the pilgrimage. This prompted the Saudi authorities to implement a compulsory vaccination policy with bivalent A/C vaccine for all pilgrims coming to Makkah.

In 1992 another group A meningitis outbreak was reported in Makkah during the peak Umrah season in Ramadan, but this outbreak was not known to have spread beyond Saudi Arabia.

The most common infectious disease that requires vaccination is the pneumococcal disease, which is caused by the Streptococcus pneumonia bacterium. The infection spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing. Infection can result in pneumonia, blood and middle ear infections, or bacterial meningitis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that pneumococcal disease is the world’s No. 1 preventable cause of death among infants and children younger than 5 years of age. According to WHO, up to 1.6 million people die each year globally as a result of pneumococcal diseases, from children to adults over the age of 65. WHO classes pneumococcal disease as a major cause of mortality and morbidity.

Vaccination is the only available method to prevent pneumococcal disease. WHO adds that the recent development of widespread microbial resistance to essential antibiotics underlines the urgent need for more efficient pneumococcal vaccines.

People at higher risk include those above 65 years of age, people with weakened immune systems, patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, lung, heart and kidney diseases and cancer.

“Currently, there are over 80 different known strains of Streptococcus pneumonia. There is no vaccine that can protect against all the strains.
However, three vaccines are available to help prevent infection with the most common strains: PCV7, PCV10 and PPS23. Pneumovax 23, another vaccine, helps protect other age groups and protects against some of the most virulent strains of the disease in adults,” said Dr. Wail Al-Qasim, General Manager for MSD Saudi Arabia.

The benefits of vaccination go beyond prevention of certain diseases. It makes good economic sense and lower global mortality by facilitating access to a safe and efficient preventive tool. So, anyone planning to perform Haj must make sure that they take proper vaccinations after consulting their physicians.

Source: Saudi Gazette


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