Health experts put Hajj season monkeypox concerns into perspective

The symptoms of monkeypox include a distinctive rash, which the Saudi Ministry of Health says it is prepared to manage should any cases arise during Hajj. (AFP)
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Updated 05 July 2022

Health experts put Hajj season monkeypox concerns into perspective

  • Still-unknown routes of transmission and virus’ rapid rate of mutation are a cause for global concern
  • Total number of Hajj pilgrims limited to about 1 million because “pandemic still exists, not over yet”

DUBAI: As Saudi Arabia prepares to receive up to 1 million Hajj pilgrims from around the world for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the shadow of a new virus looms over the horizon, raising the inevitable question of whether monkeypox will be the next global health crisis.

Thus far, more than 5,700 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 52 countries, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Europe accounts for nearly 90 percent of all confirmed and reported cases worldwide since mid-May. As of this week, 31 countries in the continent have reported at least one monkeypox case. A handful of cases have been identified in the Middle East, mainly in the UAE.

The World Health Organization has ruled that the spread of monkeypox does not yet qualify as a global health emergency. However, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, has voiced concern over the rapidly evolving threat.




Up to 1 million Hajj pilgrims from around the world will partake in religious rites this year. (SPA)

Experts are divided on whether the jump in the number of monkeypox cases worldwide from 800 to 3,500 during June is a sufficient cause for alarm.

Smallpox, which belongs to the same family of viruses as monkeypox, was eradicated in the 1980s through mass vaccination. Some scientists believe monkeypox is spreading because of the human population’s diminishing protection from smallpox.

Others believe climate change is a likely culprit behind the spread of the virus as the space between human communities and animal habitats shrinks.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, has suggested that as the planet deals with rising levels of ecological fragility and climate stress, both animal and human behaviors are being affected.

Citing recent findings, researchers at the US National Institutes of Health have said that the monkeypox virus strain has mutated 12 times more than expected since 2018.

The current strain is said to be circulating at an abnormally rapid speed, which could change its regular contamination patterns.

Under the circumstances, how afraid should the Arab world be of the monkeypox virus?

The unprecedented increase in cases is concerning, but the threat can be controlled, says Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University, Saudi Arabia.

Noting that it is still not clear whether monkeypox is an airborne virus or not, he told Arab News: “While the main route of infection is sexual contact or contact with blisters or rashes of infected persons, there is evidence suggesting that monkeypox can be transmitted through the respiratory system.”

What is known for sure is that close and extended contact with an infected person must take place for contamination to occur.

For the same reasons, according to Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious diseases expert and director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic, monkeypox should not be a significant concern during the upcoming Hajj season.

While those who live with or have close contact with infected persons are at a higher risk of the disease, increased risk of infection during Hajj is “unlikely,” he told Arab News.




Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious diseases expert and director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic. (Supplied)

“Monkeypox is a rare but dangerous infection similar to the now eradicated smallpox virus, but it is nowhere near as transmissible and has a very low fatality rate if treated properly and promptly.”

Signs of monkeypox infection, according to Dr. Algassi, include skin lesions such as blisters around the genitals, hands, legs, face and arms, fever and swelling of the lymph nodes. The symptoms are more severe for immunocompromised individuals, he said, but “rarely fatal.”

Dr. Algassi explained that the first outbreak was reported in monkeys in 1958, before it became clear that rodents were the source of the infection.

“The monkeypox virus is a zoonotic virus that is usually transmitted from animal hosts to humans or even other animals and belongs to a larger family called pox viruses,” he said.

The first human case of monkeypox was diagnosed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970, and quickly became endemic in several African countries. However, the disease has rarely spread outside Africa.
 




A monkeypox virion obtained from a clinical sample associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. (AFP)

A health protocol issued by the Saudi Ministry of Health last month requires pilgrims flying in from Nigeria to complete a monkeypox declaration form 24 hours before departure.

The ministry earlier said it was fully prepared to monitor and deal with any monkeypox cases, and that no cases had been recorded in the Kingdom so far.

All necessary medical and laboratory tests were available in the Kingdom, the ministry said, adding that it issued guidelines to healthcare workers on the matter. The ministry also said it had a complete preventive and curative healthcare plan to deal with any cases.

With regard to COVID-19, the ministry has announced an approved list of vaccines along with the requisite doses for each inoculation. It has also provided plans for managing any cases that emerge during the Hajj season by providing tents for the isolation of infected pilgrims.

FASTFACTS

• Saudia has dedicated a fleet of 14 aircraft for pilgrims.

• More than 268 international flights from and to 15 stations.

• 32 domestic flights to and from six stations.

• 107,000 International and 12,800 domestic seats in total.

• Pilgrims are flown to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah or Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah.

Appearing this week on “Frankly Speaking,” the flagship weekly current affairs talk show of Arab News, Hisham Saeed, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of Hajj and Umrah services and official spokesman, said that despite the new threat of monkeypox, “we are ready to handle any case, any scenario.”

A 30,000-strong medical team of doctors and nurses, as well as over 185 hospitals in the Kingdom and more than 100 medical centers in the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Madinah, will be ready to treat pilgrims suffering from any illness, according to Saeed.

He said although more pilgrims will be allowed this year than in the past two years, the total number will still be limited on account of health concerns.
 




Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University. (Supplied)

“This year we have a decision to go for 1 million, because the pandemic still exists, it’s not over yet, and we are not running the full capacity for this year,” Saeed said.

Indeed, according to Dr. Poland, unlike monkeypox, COVID-19 continues to be a threat in huge crowds and gatherings. “This is the much larger issue as immunization rates are likely to be low or variable and amassing large numbers of such individuals together over days represents a risk and threat,” he told Arab News.

Echoing the same concern, Dr. Algaissi cited the emergence of new variants such as the omicron sub-variant, BA.5, which gives COVID-19 an “evolutionary advantage,” adding that these variants could get introduced from one country to another through travel.

Having said that, he noted that “most of the world is now vaccinated, which provides a primary layer of protection, especially against severe infection or death.”




Health measures are part of the Kingdom’s broader preparations for Hajj, which includes monitoring at the Saudi National Center for Security Operations. (AP)

Dr. Algaissi further pointed to the strict precautionary protocols adopted by the health authorities in Saudi Arabia as key in managing any potential outbreaks during the Hajj season.

Apart from being fully vaccinated, wearing masks in the holy sites and practicing basic hygiene precautions are essential during Hajj.

“Most importantly, if a pilgrim feels any respiratory symptoms during Hajj, they should strictly follow these instructions and avoid contacting others to stop spreading the infection,” Dr. Algaissi said.

Avoiding “skin-to-skin contact with others” will also help reduce chances of the spread of monkeypox.


UK expedition tracing steps of Philby hopes to inspire next generation to explore Saudi Arabia’s beauty

Updated 18 sec ago

UK expedition tracing steps of Philby hopes to inspire next generation to explore Saudi Arabia’s beauty

  • Granddaughter Reem Philby part of homage to Ibn Saud and explorer
  • Pact with KAUST to collect data on culture, desert life, biodiversity

LONDON: A small team of UK explorers have launched an expedition to retrace the 1,300-kilometer 1917 journey of British explorer and scholar, Harry St. John Philby, across Saudi Arabia, in the hope of impacting future generations.

The Heart of Arabia expedition, named after Philby’s book about his journey, was launched on Tuesday at the Royal Geographical Society in London, which was held under the patronage of Britain’s Princess Anne, and with the attendance of Saudi ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar.

Speaking at her first public engagement since the death of her mother Queen Elizabeth II, she said: “The scope for finding more in this expedition is just enormous to add to that level of knowledge, and I think we all have something we can really look forward to, and possibly something that we will envy about those taking part in this expedition, which allows them to be part of that learning exercise.”

The planned 1,300-km Heart of Arabia coast-to-coast trek across the peninsula was launched by Anne, Princess Royal of the UK, in her first public engagement since the death of her mother, Queen Elizabeth II. (AN Photo)

Omani-based British explorer Mark Evans MBE, leader of the expedition, said the team, who will be making the journey on foot, and with camels and four-wheel drives, consists of four people. The other members are Swiss photographer Ana-Maria Pavalache, regional expert Alan Morrissey, and Philby’s granddaughter, explorer Reem Philby.

“When Philby reached Riyadh in 1917, he met Abdulaziz ibn Saud and the two of them became almost lifetime companions (and) he and Ibn Saud spent hour on hour, day after day talking, and then he continued to Jeddah, so we will follow the same structure,” Evans told Arab News.

The first leg begins on Nov. 15 in Al-Uqair in the Eastern Province and will pass through Al-Ahsa Oasis, Al-Hadida/Rub Al-Khali, Hofuf, Ramlat Dahna, Abu Jifan and stop in the capital, Riyadh, on Nov. 30, where they will take a short break. The second leg will begin on Jan. 15 with a visit by Princess Anne to the Kingdom, where she will see the team off as they continue to Dhurma, Halban, Qahqa, Taif, Darb Zubaydah, and conclude in the western city of Jeddah on Jan. 30.

The Heart of Arabia journey will set off in November, a century after Philby’s crossing, and is led by veteran British explorer Mark Evans (C). (AN Photo)

“The journeys are incomparable really, because in Philby’s day, no one knew where he was, he had no way of communicating other than by sending back messages via camels, whereas we will have satellite technology, social media, we’ll be doing live Instagram posts from the middle of the biggest desert on Earth, so life is so much easier today,” he said.

Evans added that some of the challenges of the past would not be an issue this time, with regards to finding water and food, but he said the biggest potential weak link may be the camels. They have to choose the right ones and “toughen them up” before the start.

“Camels have gone soft today like human beings, we have Deliveroo, camels have their Bedouin handlers who bring the food to them rather than having to wander to find the grass or water ... so camels are not working animals anymore,” he explained, whereas when Philby did his journey, camels would walk over 50 kilometers a day carrying heavy loads.

 

 

The aim of the expedition also differs from Philby’s due to its nature. He was sent for political reasons by British writer, traveler, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist Gertrude Bell from Baghdad to meet the future king in 1917 to stop the Ottomans smuggling guns across the central deserts of Arabia. However, their mission now is to “celebrate an extraordinary man and an extraordinary country,” while also collecting cultural, geographical, and scientific data.

“There’ll be young people joining us in all stages of the journey, so we want to inspire the next generation of Philbys to go out there and look and record and just add to our understanding of Arabia,” said Evans, who also heads the NGO Outward Bound Oman.

Reem, who has trekked across the Kingdom, as well as in Peru and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, said the expedition was “completely down her alley” and it was “truly overwhelming” to trace the steps he walked over 100 years ago.

The expedition will honor the undertaking and achievement of adventurer, Arabist and intelligence officer Harry St. John Philby, who traveled from Al-Uqair to Jeddah, on a mission in support of Ibn Saud. (Heart of Arabia)

“Having that impact on the young generation is truly important, in my opinion. I am a strong believer of the importance of taking kids to the outdoors and having them experience being uncomfortable, step out of their comfort zones and their homes and their usual environments,” said the 42-year-old mother of two. “I know that it will shape truly humbled (and) strong adults in the future.”

Pavalache, who has been a mountain leader in the Swiss Alps, said it is important to tell the story of an incredible man, who brought enormous information to mapping the region. She thinks “it might be a challenge to get immersed in what he was doing, because today, Saudi Arabia is very modernized and to find that balance” between the past and present.

“We would have a couple of places where we will try to get the same images, but I think it is important for us to see how the environment changed today, and also the people who live in the desert and the community, and after we have three parts of research that we will follow within this context,” she said.

The team, which will travel by foot and on camels, includes Swiss photographer Ana-Maria Pavalache (C), regional expert Alan Morrissey and Philby’s Saudi granddaughter, Reem. (AN Photo)

The data and observations generated by the team, in collaboration with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, will support scientific specialists to advance human performance in extreme environments, understanding of pre-Islamic history, and insights into local biodiversity, specifically bats. There are around 30 species in the Kingdom with very little known on the populations, distribution and ecology.

UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia Neil Crompton said Philby was an important figure in the history of relations between Great Britain and the Kingdom, which was known as Arabia when he set out on his expedition, and where he lived most of his life and was an important adviser to Ibn Saud on many matters.

“It’s a chance to learn about his life and the role that he played in the development of relations between the two countries and in Saudi Arabia,” he said, lauding the “immensely strong” ties that exist between the two kingdoms.

“Saudi Arabia is opening up its tourism sector (and) Britons from many different walks of life are coming in, and it’s great to see the explorers came 100 years ago, but now they’re coming back, and so hopefully, we’ll see more of these sorts of things,” Crompton said. “I think that people-to-people links are ultimately the foundation of the relationship.”

He added: “I think the chance to see an expedition crossing the desert in this way will be very interesting to many people in Britain, and I hope encourage more people to visit the Kingdom in the way that so many Saudis come to the UK.”

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Saudi ministry wins 2 communication awards in UAE

Updated 01 October 2022

Saudi ministry wins 2 communication awards in UAE

  • 53 candidates were shortlisted in 19 award classes

SHARJAH, UAE: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development won two accolades at the 9th Sharjah Government Communication Awards in the UAE.

The ministry scooped awards in the categories for best systems in government communication in the Arab world, and best government communication initiative to empower women globally.

Fifty-three candidates were shortlisted in 19 award classes, with the Saudi ministry recognized for the methodology used in the implementation of its projects, the impact and results achieved, the effective use of technology and media to reach target audiences, and its innovative and proactive visions.

The ministry’s assistant minister for shared services, Mohammed bin Nasser Al-Jasser, said the awards success was down to the hard work of employees.

He added that the ministry sought to create an effective communication media system capable of keeping pace with the rapid changes taking place in the sectors it supervised while responding to the digital transformation that had seen a transformation in government media over recent years.

 

 


Diriya Gate Development Authority launches project to encode Diriyah history in Braille

Updated 01 October 2022

Diriya Gate Development Authority launches project to encode Diriyah history in Braille

  • The project will help visually impaired people gain a deeper understanding of the history of Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi royal family

RIYADH:  The Diriyah Gate Development Authority has teamed up with the National Association of the Blind “Kafeef” to launch an initiative for the translation of Diriyah’s history into Braille.

The project will help visually impaired people gain a deeper understanding of Diriyah’s history.

Paper copies of the content printed in Braille will help strengthen participants’ emotional connection to their rich Saudi history and heritage.

The project reflects DGDA’s commitment to the visually impaired, and is aligned with the authority’s mandate to preserve and celebrate its culture and heritage.

The first part of the initiative runs until Oct. 15, and includes a course on Diriyah’s history for young men and women from “Kafeef.”

Supporting course materials were translated into paper and digital formats, including content on the year 850 — the year that Diriyah was established — as well as the At-Turaif district and the history of the First Saudi State.

Participants with the highest scores have since been selected to teach within the program itself, based on the level of their interest in Saudi history and their Braille skills.

DGDA is committed to working with “Kafeef” to provide support to participants, including paper and digital training materials, as well as lessons for registered participants, with an official certificate available on completion of the course.

The course is expected to foster a competitive, knowledge-based atmosphere that will help bolster the connection visually impaired individuals have to their heritage; strengthen their sense of belonging to their country’s past, present, and future; and instil a sense of community and collective investment in the country’s progress.

 

 

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On coffee, world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia's Khawlani bean

Updated 30 September 2022

On coffee, world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia's Khawlani bean

  • Arab News launched atest deep dive, “A cup of Gahwa: The taste and traditions of Saudi coffee”
  • Interactive feature celebrates Year of Saudi Coffee ahead of International Coffee Day this Saturday

LONDON: Arab News launched its latest deep dive, “A cup of Gahwa: The taste and traditions of Saudi coffee,” celebrating the Year of Saudi Coffee ahead of International Coffee Day this Saturday.

The long-form, interactive feature delves into the culture and heritage of Saudi coffee as it explores the home of Jazan’s green gold — the Khawlani bean.

Arab News partnered with Jabaliyah, the first coffee brand to originate exclusively in the Kingdom, on the deep dive and a limited edition coffee box.

“As Arab News celebrates the Year of Saudi Coffee, it’s our pleasure to partner with Jabaliyah, a speciality Saudi coffee company. Always supporting talented local business, Jabaliyah has produced delightful smooth Saudi coffee, which we are proud to partner with,” Arab News Assistant Editor-in-Chief Noor Nugali said.

Reporters traveled to Jabaliyah’s headquarters in Jazan to speak to the company’s co-founder and learn how the Khawlani bean goes from the tree to the brew.

“Arab News has been a key supporter of local authentic innovation and local startups from the get-go. We have been privileged at Jabaliyah to have had this support from them since the early days of our launch three years ago, and they continue to celebrate our endeavor as a true local content venture,” Ali Al-Sheneamer, co-founder of Jabaliyah, said.

For centuries, coffee has played a central role in the social life of Saudis. It is nothing less than a national symbol of identity, hospitality and generosity, and the focus of gatherings formal and informal, from the tents of the Bedouin of old in the deserts of Najd, to the stylish new cafes in the Kingdom’s cities.

But what some might not appreciate, even as 2022 is celebrated in the Kingdom as the Year of Saudi Coffee, is that when it comes to the planet’s most popular drink, the whole world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia — the Khawlani bean.

Today, coffee is most closely associated with countries such as Brazil and Colombia.

But the potential of the coffee tree, which grows wild only in Ethiopia, was first recognized and developed by Arabs, as far back as the 14th century.

As William Ukers, editor of the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal in New York, wrote in “All About Coffee,” his exhaustive 1922 study: “The Arabians must be given the credit for discovering and promoting the use of the beverage, and also for promoting the propagation of the plant, even if they found it in Abyssinia (Ethiopia).”

Hundreds of years ago, discovering that the plant Coffea arabica thrived in the climate of the lush mountains of the land that would become Saudi Arabia, they brought it across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.

There, they successfully cultivated it on terraces cut into the flanks of the Sarawat Mountains, perfecting the art of roasting and brewing the seeds of its fruit to make the drink the world would come to know and love.

Not for nothing is the Khawlani coffee bean known in Saudi Arabia as “the green gold of Jazan.”

The bean, and the knowledge and practices related to cultivating it, occupies such a central role in the heritage and traditional social rituals of Saudi Arabia that it is now being considered for inclusion on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

According to the document submitted to UNESCO by the Ministry of Culture, the Khawlani bean is named for Khawlan bin Amir, a common ancestor of the coffee-growing tribes that live in the mountains of Jazan province

“During the harvest season,” the document says, “farmers break the monotony of the work by singing poem verses. One person sings and the group repeats after to create a harmonic rhythm as they pick coffee beans.

“Men and women both roast then grind the beans used to prepare coffee.”

Importantly, the skills are handed down from generation to generation: “Families encourage youngsters to work in the lands, starting with minor tasks, until they develop the skills and know-how needed to cultivate coffee trees and the processing of the coffee beans.”

Coffee, adds the UNESCO document, “is a symbol of generosity in Saudi Arabia,” and the tribes of Khawlani personify this “through their dedication and their passion for this practice.”


Riyadh forum to focus on science, philosophy

Updated 30 September 2022

Riyadh forum to focus on science, philosophy

RIYADH: Space diplomacy, climate change and environmental issues will be among far-reaching topics to be discussed at a major philosophy and science conference in the Saudi capital.

The event is being organized by the Kingdom’s Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission and will take place from Dec. 1-3 at King Fahd National Library in Riyadh.

Philosophers, scientists and artists will take part in the forum, which is being held under the theme “Knowledge and Exploration: Space, Time and Humanity.”

The three-day conference will include lectures, panel discussions, seminars and workshops on a range of issues affecting the future of the planet.

Mohamed Hassan Alwan, CEO of the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, said: “Last year’s ground-breaking conference succeeded in putting Saudi Arabia on the global philosophical map, and established the Kingdom as a regional center for philosophical dialogue.”

The second conference “will bring together leading philosophers, educational institutions and others to debate the important issues of our time, and help stimulate intercultural, international and interdisciplinary dialogue,” he said.

Speakers for the event will be announced nearer the date of the conference.