Saudi's tackle health on the hajj
One of the biggest dangers with a gathering this large is the spread of disease.
Think about it. You have people coming from every part of the world, carrying who knows what germs, bacteria, and viruses with them. In the case of a serious strain of influenza (think H1N1 or Avian flu), any kind of outbreak could be deadly.
Germs and viruses can spread very easily here. To complicate matters, many parts of the world don't have high levels of health education. In some countries, it's common to sneeze or blow your nose right onto the ground. In Mecca, where people are generally barefoot in holy sites, it becomes a recipe for disaster.
Over the past several years, Saudi authorities have been making big strides in public health education. Here are some of this year's highlights:
- They've distributed more than half a million health awareness brochures. They cover simple things that we in the West might take for granted - like covering your mouth when you cough, washing your hands frequently, etc. - but that people in remote parts of the world may not have yet been exposed to.
- They've set up a toll-free number that pilgrims can call if they have any health/safety concerns. It runs very much like Telehealth Ontario. Haven't called it myself, so I can't comment on how long the wait time is.
- They have an 24-hr field laboratory for diagnosing virus strains. Apparently, they have specialized equipment that allows them to get test results much faster than normal. It's crucial, here, because viruses can spread very quickly. If they're not diagnosed early on, they could be impossible to stop.
- It doesn't have to do with viruses, but this is worth mentioning: Saudi officials now say Mecca and all surrounding sites connecting to the pilgrimage are now -free. It's one of the most progressive bylaws I've seen in the Middle East. It doesn't mean that no one smokes. It just means you can't buy any tobacco products within a five mile radius. Anecdotally, it seems to be working. In the days I've been here, I've yet to see anyone light up, whether indoors or out. It's a remarkable achievement, given how widespread cigarette use once was here.
One of the biggest developments is the launch of a new air ambulance service. They say the goal is to bring any patient to the nearest hospital or medical centre within an hour. Given the huge crowds and congestion, one hour would be an incredible feat.
In the past, I've seen people get hurt and need urgent medical care. It's not a pretty site. It ranges from common cases - people fainting, spraining their ankles, etc - to a more serious incident when a man literally died in my arms. Because of all the pedestrian traffic, ambulances can't get to all these cases in time. It would actually be faster to strap the patient on a stretcher and walk them to the hospital.
That's why the air ambulance can make such a big difference. It would be make for a great TV story. A rare slice of the Hajj that you don't often get to see. Fly along with paramedics and showcase the work they do, and test just how effective it is.