Saudi Arabia warns pilgrims to wear masks to stop spread of virus

Saudi policemen, wearing protective masks against swine flu, stand guard near the holy city of Mecca on November 28, 2009.

Story highlights

  • Saudi Arabia is preparing for an onslaught of religious pilgrims
  • The Health Ministry wants to prevent the spread of the new respiratory disease, MERS
  • MERS kills more than half the people it is known to infect
  • But it is unlikely to become a pandemic, health officials say

Saudi Arabia is asking pilgrims to cover their mouths with a mask while in crowded places -- or risk spreading a deadly disease.

In four months, the holy city of Mecca opens its doors to millions of Muslim pilgrims for the annual Hajj, with multitudes congregating at the same holy places at the same time. Others visit during the holy month of Ramadan, which started this week.

It's a perfect scenario for catching and spreading the relatively new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has befallen Saudi Arabia almost exclusively, state-run SPA news agency reports.

What is the Hajj?

The ailment, caused by the coronavirus, wreaks havoc on the respiratory systems of those who contract it.

More than half of those known to have caught it have died. Of 81 infected worldwide, 45 have died, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

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Of the total cases, 66 were in Saudi Arabia, where 38 people succumbed to it.

It mainly affects older men, the CDC says. So far, there is little to indicate that it could become the kind of deadly pandemic SARS was, though it is caused by a related virus.

All Muslims must undertake the journey at least once in their lifetime, and the government is telling them to add some preventative health requirements to their spiritual rituals.

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Most of them are common sense recipes for stopping the spread of the common cold:

Wash hands, especially after coughing and sneezing; throw used tissues in the trash; don't touch your eyes, nose and mouth while in public places.

And the Health Ministry wants people to wear a surgical mask while in crowded locations.

People with challenged immune systems should avoid travel to the birthplace of Islam for now, the ministry said. This includes people with chronic diseases such as diabetes and those infected with HIV.

Also, while in Saudi Arabia, the Health Ministry requests, please, don't sneeze in other people's faces.