The Washington Post runs an Associated Press story about how the Haj is providing science certain tools to monitor swine flu (A/H1N1). It is, in a way, an experiment that would never be approved by any medical ethics board, but one that was going to happen simply through the fact of having millions of people from around the world all in close contact. So far, only a few deaths of pilgrims have been diagnosed as having been caused by the flu. The concern now is that as pilgrims return home, they will be bringing a newer, modified form of the flu back with them. Again, this isn’t something that can be controlled, only monitored.
MINA, SAUDI ARABIA — Millions of Muslim pilgrims, some wearing surgical masks, jostled one another Saturday to furiously cast pebbles at stone walls representing the devil — the hajj ritual of highest concern to world health authorities watching for an outbreak of swine flu.
The Islamic pilgrimage draws 3 million visitors each year, making it the largest annual gathering of people in the world and an ideal incubator for the H1N1 flu virus.
So far, about 60 flu cases have been uncovered, but health officials warn that the true impact will be known only after the faithful have returned to their home countries around the world.
Saudi officials, along with U.S. and international health experts, have geared up to try to limit any outbreak here. But they are also using the pilgrimage as a test case to build a database, watch for mutations and look for lessons on controlling the flu at other large gatherings, such as the 2010 soccer World Cup to be held in South Africa.