Tuesday, January 10, 2006



With more than 2 million Muslims gathered in Mecca for this year's Hajj pilgrimage, authorities are fearing a human to human bird flu outbreak, one that might infect thousands of the gathered who could then return home to countries across the globe carrying the virus.

This would be a worst case scenario, and there is yet to be an official confirmation of human to human transmission, but it still remains a possibility. Hundreds of Indonesians are now in Mecca for the pilgrimage and will be screened before returning home now that a new outbreak of human infection and deaths have been reported in Indonesia in the past few days.

All flights into and out of Indonesia are supposed to be monitored already for signs of infected fliers, but as the virus is believed to have an incubation period of up to a week (before it shows its presence in visible and diagnosable symptoms) little short of blood testing every flier in and out of Indonesia would totally contain the virus in the event of a human to human outbreak.

Saudi Arabia has brought millions of dollars worth of Tamiflu, which may slow the bird flu infection in humans. But this will only be given out when signs of infection show themselves, and there would only be enough for a small percentage of those perhaps exposed.

Imported poultry is now banned in Saudi Arabia, along with Iran, most of
Russia, Turkey and a growing number of EU states.

Heavy screening for infected persons has already taken place at Saudi airports as well as at all border crossings.

Because of the sheer concentration of people into a relatively small area, in the past flu viruses have spread like fire amongst the pilgrims.

What the World Health Authority fears most of all now is that a person carrying the bird flu virus (picked up from infected poultry) is in Mecca and will come close to another person carrying one of the multitude of human flu viruses.

Their nightmare scenario is that these two viruses will then join together and mutate into a human form of the bird flu virus, which may then be easily passed from human to human, touching off the worldwide pandemic that has caused such panic and multibillion dollar spending sprees on drugs like Tamiflu and specialised health facilities and equipment by governments across the world.

WHO is believed to have already stationed emergency teams in or near Saudi Arabia so the outbreak can be contained should their worst forecasting become terrifyingly real. Saudi Arabia have deployed more than 60,000 police and troops around Mecca.

In the end there may be a far greater risk to human lives from regional and sectarian tensions amongst the gathered Muslims. While Saudi authorities have taken WHO's advice to heart and treated the threat of a bird flu outbreak very seriously, they see a far more looming and likely death toll in stampedes, bombings or shootings when Shiite and Sunnis, in particular, find themselves in close quarters.

Saudi authorities have been accused of barring thousands of Iraqis from entering the kingdom. Pilgrims from Indonesia and Turkey have also been refused entry on security grounds.

While bird flu seemed to have slowly slipped out of the headlines during the past three or four months, the virus has been gradually working its way across the globe.

Last week in Turkey saw the first human bird flu deaths outside of Asia, when three children of the same family became infected and died within days of each other.

For now the WHO claims all infections in Turkey, where more than 70 people are now under observation, are likely to have come from contact with infected birds.

But as with the Indonesian infections last year, not everyone infected in Turkey has been exposed to diseased poultry.

WHO sees such cases as anomalies and has stated those persons must have had very, very close contact with an infected person, such as comforting or kissing someone who has already contracted the virus from infected birds.

That may sound like human to human infections, but WHO tends to not view them that way. Their definition of human to human transmission would be where a bird flu infected person enters a crowd of people and this vicinity contact allows the virus to spread quickly though the crowd, infecting many, and killing most of those infected.

But in Mecca it hasn't happened yet. For now the Hajj goes on.

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