Tips & Resources

Pilgrims to Mecca Need a Visa AND Vaccinations

By James Daw, Contributing Writer

When three million travellers come together, they can’t help but share the risk of infection.

For this reason, Saudi Arabia has strict rules when hosting the massive annual pilgrimage known as Hajj, occurring this year from October 13th to 18th. These rules make the proof of vaccination just as important as a visa and your passport.

A special visa for Hajj is all that visiting Muslims will need for travel to the vicinities of Mecca, Jeddah, and Medina. But the requirements for vaccination will vary depending on where the travellers normally live, or where they have visited before they arrive.

Before you travel to Saudi Arabia, or other parts of the world, your physician may suggest additional precautions. Take a look at this guide to vaccinations recommended for life in Canada as well as for travelling.

“Conditions of extreme crowding carry their own risks,” notes Dr. Mark Doidge, director of the Travel Vaccine Clinic in Toronto. “So special precautions for the Hajj are needed.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada warns travellers they will need a vaccine such as Menactra to protect against four groups of meningococcal bacteria, the A, C, Y, and W135 varieties. It will not be enough to have had an inoculation for Group C meningococcal bacteria (the vaccine administered to infants in Canada).

Menactra is the brand name of one vaccine approved for use in Canada, and is suitable for children older than 2, adolescents, and adults. Other vaccines available are Menveo, Menomune, and Nimerix, which Dr. Doidge notes was released recently.

Visitors to Saudi Arabia who have passed through or lived in other nations before arriving will also need proof of inoculation for either yellow fever or polio, and in some cases, both.

Travellers arriving from countries known to have cases of yellow fever include Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru in South America, plus several Caribbean islands and countries in Africa situated near the equator.

Those who will need proof of inoculation for polio include those arriving from Afghanistan, Chad, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

For travellers who plan to attend the Hajj, the Public Health Agency of Canada advises they get inoculated for seasonal influenza, a free service in Canada.

The agency also warns that there may be a risk of contracting tuberculosis, gastrointestinal infections, and a new respiratory infection for which there is no vaccine: The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

“Do not drink tap water,” the agency adds. “Boil water or drink bottled water, peel all fruits and vegetables, and avoid undercooked meat, dairy products and most food sold in the streets.” Other potential risks include heat-related illness and risk of injury (scroll down to "Heat-Related Illnesses).

Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health is discouraging many from attending Hajj this year: Those younger than 12, older than 64, or pregnant; those with chronic medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or respiratory disease; and those with a deficient immune system, a malignancy, and/or terminal illness.

Canada’s public health agency warns travellers to report signs of infection (e.g., flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath) promptly. You are advised to:

  • seek medical attention immediately.
  • tell a border services officer or a quarantine officer upon arrival In Canada
  • see your doctor and explain where you were travelling if you develop symptoms within the 14 days since your return

The Hajj pilgrimage (and at other times of the year, the Umrah pilgrimage) has special significance to Muslims around the globe. Most will count themselves fortunate to participate once in a lifetime. May they all return as healthy as when they arrive.