The end of the year is a highly anticipated time for many Muslims in Malaysia who eagerly look forward to perform the Umrah. This is particularly exciting for those who will be doing it for the first time as they finally have the opportunity to step onto the soil of Makkah. Umrah is a minor pilgrimage similar to Hajj but can be performed at any time of the year1.
Around this time of year, pilgrims-to-be would usually prepare for their journey by equipping themselves with religious knowledge and also plan for family gatherings or kenduri. Some would even spend a considerable amount of time looking for travel tips online while also enquiring about past experiences from relatives and friends who successfully completed the Umrah. Unfortunately, among all of the advice and reminders which we receive, many seem to neglect an important aspect while preparing for Umrah – health.
While listening to various stories shared by those who performed the Umrah, you would certainly hear of pilgrims who fell sick while in Makkah or upon returning to Malaysia. Some even end up being hospitalised. This is because these pilgrims are at risk of influenza or flu infection2. Unfortunately, the flu is often mistaken as the common cold due to the similar symptoms even though it is far more dangerous3.
Influenza virus can spread from the moment you and your family gather at the airport for departure4. There are usually large crowds of people from all around the world, including those who are departing and those who just arrived. This mixing of people in a particular place could lead to the spread of different types of influenza virus as carried by individuals from different countries5,6.
However, the spread of influenza is not confined to the airport. Did you know that you could also catch the flu while on the plane?4 Flu virus can survive on surfaces for up to 48 hours, so the tray you just touched, the video screen or your seat could be housing the influenza virus7. Now, picture yourself arriving safely at Jeddah Airport, Saudi Arabia. You may think you are safe and well, but you could still catch the flu away from the airport while in Makkah and Madinah.
Makkah hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims from all around the world during Umrah season. You can ask anyone who performed the Umrah – it can’t be denied that is an arduous journey which requires strong mental and physical health. Fatigue, dehydration, hot weather and also crowding contribute to additional stress which could weaken your immune system8, making you more susceptible to influenza.
Now, imagine if you are infected with influenza. You have limited time to perform your ibadah, but the flu can cause symptoms such as fever, runny nose, and cough which can last for a week2. How could you possibly perform the ibadah comfortably when you are feeling weak and unwell?
Furthermore, influenza can cause serious complications such as pneumonia, ear infection, sinus infection, and bronchitis9. These complications could cause you to be hospitalised or it could even be fatal10. You certainly did not fly all the way to Makkah just to end up sick in your hotel, or worse, be hospitalised. Unfortunately, if you are stuck in hospital without being able to complete your tawaf, it means you couldn’t perform the compulsory rituals in Umrah. Thus, your Umrah would automatically be void11.
It’s not just about your health. Your family members who joined you for Umrah are also at risk of influenza infection. The flu virus spreads within five to seven days after the symptoms appear, with most of the infection occurring within the first three days2. However, what’s more concerning is that you may infect your family members and other pilgrims without realising. This is because the virus could also spread a day or two before the symptoms even appear2.
This is why you should take extra care especially if you are planning to bring your children along. The flu could be more dangerous for young children, particularly those below five years as their immune system is not fully matured compared with adults12,13.
Besides children, you should also be careful if your aged parents or relatives are joining you for Umrah. Those above 65 years are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications as ageing may weaken the immune system14.
Apart from that, many older persons also have inherent chronic diseases. A survey on Malaysian Umrah pilgrims found that as many as 17.3% have an underlying chronic disease while 21.5% suffer from more than one disease15. It is difficult for them to fight the flu. So, don’t let the flu worsen their pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes9.
To truly gain the blessing of Umrah, make sure your journey is safe and flu-free. The flu may be dangerous, but it is preventable.
How can you have a safe and blessed Umrah journey? Pray and hope that you do not fall sick? Tawakkal without putting in effort is insufficient. Islam teaches us that prevention is better than cure. So, we need to make an effort to find the best way to prevent a disease before leaving it to God.
Vaccination is the basic and yet best way to protect against influenza16. The Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases and Chemotherapy (MSIDC) recommends influenza vaccination for pilgrims before departing to Makkah17. It is especially encouraged for pilgrims who are at higher risk of flu-related complications including older persons, young children, and those with chronic diseases16,17.
Vaccination has been shown to be 60% effective in providing protection against influenza2. A study among Malaysian pilgrims found that influenza vaccination is able to prevent 50-60% of hospital admission and pneumonia. It also helps to reduce the risk of mortality by 80% for those above 60 years8.
So, if you are planning to take off to the Holy Land, you need to make sure that you and your family are protected against influenza at least two weeks before you depart18. This is because vaccines require that much time to help your body build the antibodies needed to fight the invading influenza virus18.
Aside from vaccination, pilgrims can also take several precautionary steps to curb the spread of influenza. This can be done by having good personal hygiene at all times16. It’s as simple as washing your hands regularly with soap and water or using a hand sanitiser, covering your mouth while coughing or sneezing, and avoiding pilgrims who are ill16. These steps may be simple, but it can help reduce the spread of influenza.