(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
Concerns about a virus that’s been spreading through parts of the Middle East led to a big decline in the number of Muslims taking part in the Hajj pilgrimage this year.
Known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS, the virus affects the respiratory system and can be fatal.
With at least 130 confirmed cases and almost 60 deaths, Saudi Arabia decided to impose visa restrictions this year which saw the number of pilgrims making the journey to Mecca down by about one million.
As Greg Dyett reports, some Australian Muslims were left disappointed when they couldn’t get a visas.
(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)
It’s a journey all able-bodied Muslims are expected to do at least once in their lifetime, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
But this year Saudi Arabia reduced the number of visas for Hajj by 20 per cent due to concerns about the MERS virus which has killed more than 50 people in the kingdom over the past year.
Muslims around the world were left disappointed when they discovered they couldn’t get a visa.
Travel agents who specialise in packages to Hajj have had to deal with clients forced to cancel.
“Quite a few have called and said that hey I want to go but they found that because of the quota, they cannot go because of the reduced numbers (Reporter) And how disappointed were they? Well they sure are and they’re hoping for the next year and they probably will want to register early next year, come next year.”
Mr Bin from Mahsuri Travel in Perth says the MERS virus didn’t seem to deter people wanting to make the pilgrimage.
“No, I don’t think they really have expressed, there’s any expression of fear, they’re still going ahead, yeah.”
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome operates in a similar way to the SARS virus of a decade ago.
Professor Robert Booy from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance has co-authored a new report on MERS.
“The MERS virus is a coronavirus so it’s similar to Sars which caused many hundreds of cases and a lot of deaths ten years ago. MERS, we think, is being transmitted from animals to humans, it could be by camels or bats or by another intermediary source which we have not yet identified.”
Professor Booy says pilgrims were advised to wear face masks as a precaution because the virus is sometimes fatal.
He says the health threat to Australia from Muslims returning from Hajj is very small partly because Australia has mechanisms in place to deal with sick travellers.
“There’s screening already in place so that people who develop a respiratory illness and arrive home from the Middle East are unwell will be referred for assessment and samples will be taken for tests for the MERS virus.”
In preparation for future Hajj pilgrimages, tens of billions of dollars is being spent on new hotels and building re-designs in Mecca, including the city’s Grand Mosque which is being expanded to provide additional space.
With the holy sites ringed by cranes, this pilgrim told Al Jazeera he’s worried the city is in danger of losing its authenticity as it tries to modernise.
“The whole terrain is being changed, the mountains have actually been levelled and that’s sad. One of the, these are the same mountains that the Prophet Mohammed used to herd goats on and which was his training for prophethood.”