A Blessed Umrah With Your Flu-Free Family

A Blessed Umrah With Your Flu-Free Family

Ensure you and your family are protected from influenza for a blessed and safe Umrah

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.

The Flu is Around You

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.


The Flu Hinders Umrah

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.


The Flu, Umrah and Your Family

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.


Tips to Prevent The Flu for Pilgrims

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[8]. 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.


The Flu Is More Serious Than You Think

The Flu Is More Serious Than You Think

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, annual flu epidemics are estimated to result in about:

Catching the flu could also lead to life-threatening complications like:

While the flu is deadliest among children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, no one is protected from the virus without vaccination.

Learn more about flu vaccination in the slideshow below:


Chronic disease patients & Older persons

Chronic disease patients & Older persons

Many Malaysian adults live with one or more non-communicable diseases, such as, type 2 diabetes mellitus, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, chronic kidney disease and liver disease that are immunosuppressive. Such medical conditions make it much harder to fight and recover from a flu infection11. A host of adverse events can occur – the flu may worsen the pre-existing chronic disease (eg raising a diabetic patient’s blood glucose to dangerous levels) or bring on a heart attack or stroke11. We would have a perfect storm when the flu complications themselves set in. This explains why people with chronic diseases are likely to get hospitalised or die after a bout of flu11.

Those 65 years old or older are also particularly vulnerable to the flu. Many of them are living with non-communicable diseases. Their risk is further compounded by having immune systems that have been weakened by age11.

So, it is recommended that patients with chronic disease and older persons make annual flu vaccinations a part of their lifestyle11. The decision could make all the difference to their health and quality of life.


Getting Ready For That Big Vacation?

Getting Ready For That Big Vacation?

Here’s why you don’t want influenza to wreck your carefully-laid out plans

The holiday season is finally here! If you were having a busy year, then you certainly are looking forward to that big vacation you had planned meticulously for. After all, just like everyone else, you can’t wait to trade your formal shoes or heels for summer flip-flops or winter boots and spend some much needed time with your family in a relaxing environment.

So, your highly-anticipated day finally arrives and you’re all packed and ready to go. You board the plane excitedly, check into your hotel upon arrival and begin your first day of holiday, sight-seeing. Then, after completing that delicious dinner and wrapping it up with dessert, you happily head to bed ready for more adventures the next day.

Now, just imagine, the next morning you awake with a scratchy throat. As uncomfortable as it was, you go ahead with the day’s activities. Then to your utmost horror, by nightfall you have a raging fever which makes your teeth chatter. While you shiver under the covers, your head is pounding, your body aches and you just lay in bed without an ounce of energy.

Unfortunately, you can barely sleep due to that persistent cough and annoying fever. But since your fancy local tour package for the day is non-refundable, you can’t cancel it as the money would be wasted. So, your family goes ahead forlornly without you while you stay behind alone and sick in your hotel room.

Surely at this point, all you can think about is the horrible misery you are in, how you can’t stop coughing and why the fever continues to spike despite taking paracetamol and cough syrup. This has already turned into a classic traveller’s nightmare. Surely things can’t get any worse, you wonder. But it sure does.

While desperately hoping to get better, your health takes a downward spiral. You are now feeling seriously ill. You climb out of bed weakly and stumble into a taxi to see a doctor. Much to your dismay, the local doctor doesn’t speak your language well and you spend a frustrating 30 minutes explaining your symptoms. Finally, the doctor calmly concludes that you caught the insidious flu virus. So, you return to your hotel with a mini pharmacy in your bag.

It’s been 3 miserable days since you arrived at your holiday destination but you feel no better. Your fever is still raging and you feel extremely weak. Your family is now troubled by your deteriorating health and they rush you to the hospital. After enduring the hassle of paperwork for insurance claims, you are finally admitted and treated. So, you spend 2 days in hospital, feeling ill while watching endless foreign-language soap operas. Nothing is more depressing than that.

After a couple of days, your condition somewhat improves and you are discharged from the hospital. You feel much better but you only have a day or two left. So you spend the few precious hours sight-seeing with your family. Your holiday had turned into nothing more than an expensive tour of foreign pharmacies, clinics and a hospital. Still looking for the bright side of your holiday? You will probably feel fine on your return flight to Malaysia.

It’s not the common cold, it’s influenza (flu)

As we all know, travelling is a truly enjoyable activity. But nothing ruins a holiday more than falling sick and having to suffer through it. Yet, you would often see many people travelling with the flu as it’s too inconvenient and expensive to postpone flights or reschedule hotel and tour bookings. So, these people who are ill then spread the flu virus to those around them.

Influenza or flu is one of the most common infectious diseases among travellers1. It is caused by the notorious influenza (flu) virus and is not the same as the common cold. Those who are affected by the flu often have symptoms such as high fever, coughing, sneezing, and body aches2. To make matters worse, droplets from the cough or sneeze of the infected person can remain on solid surfaces for up to 48 hours3. So, you have a higher risk of catching the flu even before your holiday begins.

In tropical countries such as Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries, the influenza virus circulates throughout the year, whereas in countries with four seasons, influenza usually peaks during the autumn and winter months1.

Don’t take the flu lightly

When you travel as a family, it is important to be mindful of your children or elderly parents’ health and wellbeing. They are particularly at risk of developing serious complications from the flu including pneumonia, ear infection, meningitis, or even death if not promptly treated4.

Children below 5 years may not have a fully developed immune system while an older person’s immunity weakens due to ageing5,6. Additionally, if your elderly parents suffer from existing health problems such as diabetes, heart or lung disease, the flu could make their health condition worse7. So, not only would your holiday be ruined by the flu, you also risk racking up huge medical bills from the medication and hospitalisation.

Stay protected with influenza vaccination

While it’s almost impossible to stay away from people with the flu during your travels, you can still ensure you are well protected against it. In fact, the first item in your pre-holiday to-do list should be to consider getting a flu vaccination for yourself and your family members.

Vaccination has been shown to be effective in reducing visits to the doctor by 34-44%8. Among children, it can reduce hospitalisation by a whopping 75%9. For older persons, flu vaccination reduces hospitalisation by 29% and death by 49%1. For those who are concerned about their health when returning to work, flu vaccination can reduce workdays lost due to the flu by 32-45%8.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), America, everyone above the age of six months should receive their flu vaccination every year. The flu vaccination helps your body build immunity against the circulating strains of flu virus in that particular year. However, it is well-established that flu virus continuously mutates. Besides, different regions have different strains of flu virus. So, by getting an annual flu vaccination, you can be sure that your vaccine works effectively against the common virus and the mutated strains2.

You should also take the flu vaccine at least 2 weeks before your scheduled trip so that your body has sufficient time to develop the antibodies and fully respond to the invading flu virus. Some children between 6 months and 8 years may require 2 doses of the vaccine, 4 weeks apart, if they were never vaccinated before. So, speak to your paediatrician to ensure your children are properly vaccinated before your vacation begins11.

Lastly, basic personal hygiene can also help keep the flu at bay. Wash your hands often with soap and water. If it’s not available, use a hand sanitiser instead. Avoid unnecessarily touching your eyes, nose and mouth as this is how the flu virus can spread and infect you. You could also wipe and disinfect common items such as the food tray in the plane or even touch screen devices before using them3.

So, before saying your good-byes to neighbours and colleagues, remember that a vacation can only be as exciting as having great health. Stay protected from the flu with your influenza vaccination so that you can have a fun-filled time in your sun-and-sand getaway or winter escapade.


Flu Vaccination for Travellers & Pilgrims

Flu Vaccination for Travellers & Pilgrims

Flu is the most common vaccine-preventable health risk for business travellers, vacationers and pilgrims16. They can catch the bug while on an airplane or simply by being near infected persons in crowded places. Fortunately, travellers can prevent the flu from spoiling their trips by getting vaccinated at least 2 weeks before taking off (to allow sufficient time for the desired vaccine immunity to develop)17.

Here is a special note for Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. It is very common for them to catch a respiratory tract infection (including the flu) while in the Holy City18. A study has even shown that more than 90% of Malaysians contracted at least 1 respiratory symptom during their pilgrimage19. This does not bode well, especially for the more elderly individuals or the many who also have a chronic disease.

In order to complete their religious obligations with peace of mind, pilgrims are advised to get vaccinated to protect themselves from the flu20.


People with Respiratory Conditions

People with Respiratory Conditions

Respiratory or lung conditions include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, chronic bronchitis and pulmonary fibrosis12. Those who have these conditions need to be especially aware of risks stemming from the flu. Each year, about 17% of flu-related deaths are seen in people with chronic respiratory diseases13.

Asthma is the most common respiratory condition that affects a large number of children and adults14. For them, the flu is a serious threat, even if their asthma is mild or well-controlled by medication14. In both children and adults, respiratory viral infections are the number one trigger for asthma episodes15. Influenza can cause further inflammation to their already sensitive airways and lungs14. This worsens asthma symptoms and increase the likelihood of pneumonia or other acute respiratory diseases setting in14.

For people with lung conditions, each day could be a constant struggle. Breathe a little easier by making the annual flu vaccination a part of your personal healthcare regimen14.


Vaccination Protects High Risk Individuals from Influenza and Its Related Complications

Vaccination Protects High Risk Individuals from Influenza and Its Related Complications

People commonly mistaken the flu (influenza) for the common cold, but the two are actually not the same1. The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses2. It can come on suddenly and people who have the flu will usually experience symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue (tiredness), vomiting and, on rare occasion, diarrhoea (more common in children than adults)3.

Unfortunately, certain people may end up developing severe illness and serious complications that can sometimes lead to death3. Such complications include inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia), heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle tissues (myositis), and multi-organ failure3.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorise these individuals into high-risk groups as follows:4

  • Children younger than 5 years old (especially those under 2 years old)
  • Pregnant women
  • Older persons over 65 years old
  • Chronic disease patients
  • Individuals with respiratory conditions.

It is vital for anyone in these high-risk groups to avoid getting the flu. One of the most effective ways is by getting vaccinated against the disease5. The quadrivalent flu vaccine provides broad protection that protects against four main flu viruses – two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses6. Ask your doctor whether it is suitable for you.

Non high-risk individuals would also do well to get vaccinated7. In fact, the CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months of age should get a flu shot every year (to protect against newly mutated flu viruses circulating during a particular year)7. This makes sense as it is no fun feeling sick and miserable for days, or spreading the disease to family, friends, co-workers or, worse still, any high-risk individual in the vicinity.