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Sickness no stranger to hajj pilgrims

Monday, March 22, 1999

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For the more than 6 million Muslims who live in the United States and who may make the hajj at some point, the spiritual journey starts with putting the legal and medical paperwork in place to travel overseas.

For American Muslims, traveling to Saudi Arabia requires a visa, a passport and proof of having received the inoculations required of any U.S. citizen going abroad.

Saudi Arabia mandates that travelers to hajj be vaccinated against cholera and meningococcal meningitis to help prevent illness from contaminated food and water sources. The large crowds strain Saudi Arabia's sanitation services.

The Allegheny County Health Department also recommends vaccinations for Hepatitis A, which must be taken at least a month before travel to allow a body's immunity to build up, and a polio booster.

Some physicians also suggest additional vaccinations to protect against typhoid fever, pneumonia, diphtheria/tetanus and malaria.

Spiritual enlightenment and unity aside, getting too close to your brethren at hajj can be sickening.

There are many who get ill, said Walter Shaahid of Garfield, who made the pilgrimage five years ago. People are sneezing and coughing all over the place, he said, adding, "It's easy to catch something."

Extra care is a necessary precaution, but in some unfortunate instances, misery still makes the rounds.

For example, in 1997 there was an outbreak of typhoid in India and it is possible some Indian pilgrims carried the disease into the holy city. Gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses are very common during hajj, doctors say, as the unavoidable closeness of the pilgrims makes infections easy to spread around.

Fatigue and lack of sleep from the physically demanding regimen of hajj rites as well as the overenthusiastic exertions in prayers and devotions, can lower immunity and resistance, making pilgrims more vulnerable to disease. Getting and staying in good physical shape by regular exercise can ward off getting ill.



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