DUBAI // Camels will not be sacrificed during this year’s Haj in Mecca in an attempt to stop the spread of the Mers coronavirus.
Dr Ulrich Wernery, scientific director at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) in Dubai, said he was part of a team that recommended the measures to the Saudi Arabian ministry of health.
A genetic link between the Mers found in humans and a similar disease in camels has been found, prompting scientists to believe that camels were the most likely source of transmission from animals to humans.
Dr Wernery is involved in a CVRL study of camel herds in the UAE to investigate the links.
In April, he attended the Global Centre for Mass Gathering Medicine conference in Riyadh, where he was part of a committee of health experts that proposed the camel ban to the Saudi ministry.
“We recommended that camels should not be sacrificed this year during Haj and the proposal was accepted,” said Dr Wernery. “Camels can be sacrificed in other parts of the country but should not be done by the pilgrims during Haj.
“People are advised not to touch or embrace camels. One may click pictures of them but a distance of two to three metres should be maintained,” said Dr Wernery.
About 1.3 million animals – camels, goats, sheep and cows – are sacrificed during the Haj in Mecca.
Traditionally, animals were slaughtered by the pilgrims themselves during the Eid Al Adha festival, which starts on the 10th day of the Dhu Al Hijjah month, or around October 3 this year.
These days, however, many pilgrims buy a voucher for the animals to be slaughtered in their name.
A camel or a cow can represent the sacrifice of seven people, whereas a goat or sheep can only represent one.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), strains of Mers coronavirus matching the human virus have been found in camels in Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
These and other studies have found Mers coronavirus antibodies in camels across Africa and the Middle East.
Other animals, including goats, cows, sheep, and wild birds, have been tested for antibodies to Mers coronavirus, but so far none have been found in these animals.
These studies combined support the premise that camels were a likely source of infection in humans.
As well as avoiding camels, pilgrims have been advised to take other precautions.
“The pilgrimage is usually extremely crowded and that creates a high-risk environment for those taking part,” said Dr Mushira Enani, head of the infectious diseases section at King Fahad Medical City in Saudi Arabia.
She recommended that pilgrims should wear face masks in crowded places and regularly wash hands and use hand sanitisers.
“We advise that pilgrims maintain a balanced diet, healthy sleeping habits, practise standard infection-prevention precautions, maintain personal and respiratory hygiene and avoid handshakes with obviously ill people,” she said.
The WHO also advised the avoidance of close contact with camels, visiting farms and consuming unpasteurised camel milk or improperly cooked meat.
Pilgrims were also advised to avoid going to crowded places, and isolate themselves if they have a fever or cough until they recover.
The symptoms of the disease, which has killed about 27 per cent of people infected with it, are fever, cough, shortness of breath and diarrhoea.
Older people and those with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart problems or lung disease, appear to be more susceptible to the virus.
This month, the Health Authority – Abu Dhabi recommended that pilgrims from the UAE should get vaccinations before departing for Mecca.