Muslims who observe the Hajj are part of medical study

Dearborn, USA - Hundreds of Metro Detroiters are among an estimated 2.5 million Muslims in Mecca this week observing the Hajj, which officially begins today.

This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) are conducting a study that looks at the health impact of the annual event on Hajj pilgrims since the outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic.

Four pilgrims to Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad in Saudi Arabia, have died of the H1N1 flu virus.

Some 200 participants in the study were interviewed before they left for Mecca last week and will be interviewed upon return.

"The outcome of the feedback is going to be helpful to new (health and scientific) techniques to prevent infectious disease, said Dr. Adnan Hammad, senior director of the Community Health & Research Center for ACCESS.

The study will help doctors and epidemiologists track how illnesses and viruses spread, Hammad said.

The Hajj pilgrimage is among Muslim religious duties described in the Five Pillars of Islam.

During the Hajj, Muslims take part in the "tawaf," which involves circling the cube-shaped Kaaba building seven times.

The annual religious observance brings Muslims in close contact as they begin the six-day observance with the "tawaf" in the center of the Grand Mosque.

Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Michigan (CAIR), said the issue of remaining in good health during the lengthy pilgrimage to Mecca is a concern for family members and friends.

Community organizations like CAIR have encouraged pilgrims to take caution.

"I tell people to make sure they take hand sanitizers and to make sure they clean their hands continuously," Walid said.

"It's extremely hard not to become ill while making the pilgrimage," Walid added.

"You have 2 (million to) 3 million people there with different hygiene practices and bacteria that are foreign to Americans. It's virtually impossible not to come into contact with some sort of illness or virus."

On Friday, Muslims will observe Eid Al-Adha, a holiday to mark the end of the Hajj.