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1,301 pilgrims died of heat; 83% of them were unauthorised, says Saudi Health Ministry

Haj 2024 heat-related deaths
Haj 2024 heat-related deaths

During the 2024 Haj pilgrimage, an alarming 1,301 pilgrims lost their lives due to extreme heat exposure after walking long distances under the sun. This devastating statistic was reported by Saudi Arabia's health minister, Fahad Al-Jalajel, and broadcasted by state television. A significant factor in these fatalities was that 83% of the deceased were unauthorized pilgrims, as per the authorities' records.

The deceased included a considerable number of elderly individuals and those suffering from chronic illnesses, highlighting the vulnerability of these groups to the harsh conditions experienced during the pilgrimage. This information was corroborated by a post on X from an official handle, Inside the Haramain.

The tragic deaths occurred due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures without sufficient shelter or rest. Pilgrims were exposed to the sun for extended periods, exacerbating the effects of heat and contributing to fatal heatstroke and dehydration.

Health Advisory and Mitigation Measures

In response to the severe weather conditions, the Saudi health ministry had issued numerous advisories throughout the Haj season. These advisories warned of the soaring temperatures and strongly recommended that pilgrims stay hydrated and avoid outdoor activities during the hottest parts of the day. Despite these warnings, the extreme heat led to widespread health issues among the pilgrims.

The previous year's pilgrimage had already seen thousands of heat stress cases, prompting Saudi Arabia to implement several heat mitigation measures for Haj 2024. These measures included the establishment of climate-controlled areas to provide respite from the heat. Authorities also distributed water and provided guidelines on protecting oneself from the sun, emphasizing the importance of wearing appropriate clothing and using sunblock.

Challenges Faced by Unauthorized Pilgrims

One of the critical issues highlighted by this year's tragic events is the high number of unauthorized pilgrims. These individuals often do not have access to the same resources and support systems as authorized pilgrims, making them particularly vulnerable to the harsh conditions. Unauthorized pilgrims frequently travel without official guidance, which can result in a lack of awareness about the necessary precautions to take against heat exposure.

The Saudi authorities have emphasized the importance of following official channels when participating in the pilgrimage to ensure the safety and well-being of all pilgrims. Unauthorized pilgrims often bypass these channels, leading to overcrowding and strain on resources, further exacerbating the challenges faced during Haj.

Elderly and Chronically Ill Pilgrims at Higher Risk

The presence of a significant number of elderly and chronically ill individuals among the deceased underscores the need for targeted support for these vulnerable groups. Elderly pilgrims and those with pre-existing health conditions are more susceptible to the effects of extreme heat and dehydration. The health ministry has advised these groups to take extra precautions and to seek medical advice before undertaking the pilgrimage.

Future Measures and Recommendations

In light of this year's tragic events, Saudi Arabia is expected to review and enhance its heat mitigation strategies for future pilgrimages. This may include increasing the number of climate-controlled shelters, improving the distribution of water, and enhancing the communication of health advisories to all pilgrims, especially those who may be unauthorized.

There is also a need for better enforcement of regulations to prevent unauthorized pilgrims from participating in the Haj without proper guidance and support. Ensuring that all pilgrims have access to the necessary resources and information is crucial in preventing such tragedies in the future.

The 2024 Haj pilgrimage serves as a somber reminder of the dangers posed by extreme heat and the importance of comprehensive safety measures. The Saudi health ministry's efforts to mitigate these risks are ongoing, with a focus on protecting the health and lives of all pilgrims who undertake this sacred journey.

By: Sahiba Suri