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As world reacts to Hajj stampede, public health officials work to make pilgrimages safer
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The hajj, an annual five-day pilgrimage that every Muslim is supposed to participate in once during their lifetime, brings around 2 million people to Saudi Arabia each fall, taxing local infrastructure and keeping health officials on high alert. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
For many public health officials, the news of the deaths of more than 700 Muslim pilgrims near Mecca on Thursday was tragic but unsurprising.

Large-scale religious gatherings have long been associated with unique crises, many of which are difficult to prevent, Wired reported last week.

"There's really no discipline that's concerned with dealing with the preparation and preventative measures to prevent major public health disasters during these events," said Ziad Memish, a doctor and former Saudi Arabian government leader, to Wired.

The hajj, an annual five-day pilgrimage that every Muslim is supposed to participate in once during their lifetime, brings around 2 million people to Saudi Arabia each fall, taxing local infrastructure and keeping health officials on high alert. The pilgrims eat, sleep, walk and pray together, sacrificing personal space and comfort for the holy journey, according to Mashable.

"In conditions like that, just one sneeze or cough loaded with a sufficiently contagious microbe could spell big trouble," Wired reported.

In the weeks before this year's event, which began Sept. 21, most public health officials warned about the potential spread of MERS, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus.

However, dangerous crowd activities, such as the stampede that made this year's hajj the deadliest since 1990, are also a perennial concern, as Slate reported in 2014.

"The smallest incidents continue to trigger mass casualties, demonstrating just how fine the margins of safety are in crowds of millions," the article reported, noting that researchers estimate the hajj death rate at 42 people per 100,000.

Policymakers and health officials work to guard against catastrophe in a variety of ways, from making pilgrims prove they're vaccinated to spraying for mosquitos to limiting the number of participants.

But Memish and others believe the world needs a more coordinated strategy for lives to be saved.

"There is no accountability. It's shocking that almost every year there is some kind of death toll," said Madawi al-Rasheed, an anthropologist and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, to The New York Times.

The cause of Thursday's stampede, which also left around 800 pilgrims injured, is still unknown, the Times reported.
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