Good for the soul, bad for the body

On November 1, 2009, in polio, politics, public health, swine flu, by Karen Grepin

Swine flu has now spread so far and wide across the globe that there is perhaps little point in governments spending a lot of effort at trying to contain the spread of the virus across its borders. But one country in particular probably has real cause for concern: Saudi Arabia. In a couple of weeks, 2.5 million pilgrims from over 160 countries are expected to make the trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the hajj.

This is not the first time that the annual pilgrimage to Mecca has been scrutinized by public health experts. Anytime millions of people from different areas converge on the same place there is risk of disease transmission. There have been outbreaks of meningitis linked to the hajj and, perhaps most famously, the event propagated the spread of polio a few years ago, greatly setting back the international effort to eliminate the disease and creating one of the few diseases that seems to disproportionately affect one religious group – polio is now predominantly a disease affecting Muslim countries.

A NYTimes article last week described some of the proactive steps the government of Saudi Arabia is taking to prepare for the event and to minimize its impact on public health: encouraging all pilgrims to get vaccinated against swine flu, asking more vulnerable pilgrims to stay home (e.g. pregnant women and the elderly), and setting up sites for treatment. I am greatly encouraged by the efforts.

I am also greatly encouraged by the government’s additional efforts on polio: this year they are going to require all pilgrims to swallow an oral polio vaccine upon arrival, and they have entered into the world of major donor to the global polio elimination effort by donating an addition $30 million towards the cause.

Sometimes concerns for religious and cultural practices comes at odds with public health concerns and too often one side wins out over the other. It is good to see how both concerns can be addressed at the same time, it can be good for the body and the soul.

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