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Hajj pilgrims need flu shots, docs

EDINBURGH, Scotland, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- People planning to make the Hajj pilgrimage should get flu shots beforehand to reduce the risk of a global flu pandemic, say British doctors.

At the end of January, two million Muslim pilgrims from almost every country on earth will converge on Saudi Arabia to visit Mecca, the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad.

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Although pilgrims see this as a deeply spiritual journey, Aziz Sheikh, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, has issued a warning that such a gathering makes the possibility of a global flu pandemic much more likely. Overcrowding is common during the Hajj, and Sheikh said epidemiologists think at least one in three pilgrims will develop respiratory symptoms during their stay. That ratio increases when pilgrims come from economically developing nations.

Since Saudi authorities already require that people entering the country for the Hajj bring proof of immunization for meningitis, Sheikh and his colleagues thought that adding flu shots to the regimen would not be either inconvenient or unacceptable. They also suggested tighter surveillance to identify newly emerging flu strains while pilgrims are in the country, and international cooperation, overseen by the World Health Organization, to assemble the resources and logistics that will protect the planet's health.

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Sheikh's letter appears in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.

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