Friday, December 21, 2007

Hajj Barbers Pose Risk of STIs: Shaving-Transmitted Infections

From Arab News

Syed Faisal Ali, Arab News

MINA, 21 December 2007 — Wandering barbers were seen — as they are seen every year — roaming around the Jamrat complex with razors in hands, ready to shave pilgrims for a negotiated price. However, the price might turn out to be very high in terms of hygiene, as they usually ignore the Ministry of Health's recommendations.

These inexperienced and nonprofessional seasonal barbers were openly ignoring basic health regulations right under the nose of security officials. And the pilgrims didn't seem to pay too much attention either, flocking to these men to have their heads shaved after performing the stoning-the-devil ritual on the massive, multistory Jamrat overpass.

One of the biggest hygienic risks involved with this practice are barbers — seeking to save a little money — using the same blades on different people. Blades can create nicks, nicks can bleed, blood can contain viruses and viruses can be transferred from one nick to another: from an infected person to a non-infected person.

Though the AIDS virus can be transmitted in this manner, the transmission of AIDS is not the biggest concern here. The biggest concern is hepatitis, a far more prevalent, infectious and equally incurable virus. This is a virus that health officials the world over fear could cause a global pandemic someday. This is an infection that eventually leads to liver failure and death of its victims. And it also happens to be a virus that is found in greater numbers of people from some countries that send pilgrims to Haj, people that may not even be aware that they are carrying the virus because they haven't yet been struck with symptoms.

The Ministry of Health has opened barbershops at many places in Mina through contractors, with sitting space of around 200 each, but they are not sufficient to cater to the well-over two million pilgrims that came for Haj this year. Because of the great demand, the trade of unregulated, seasonal barbers flourishes.

Regulated barbers have been trained to use one razor blade per person, but seasonal barbers (who also often charge half the going rate of SR10) may not even be aware of the risks they are taking with public health.

Doctors are rightfully outraged. Not only are some of these barbers using the same blade on multiple customers, but in the mad rush to shave heads and make as much money as possible, the risk of razor nicks (and therefore transmission of blood-borne infections like hepatitis and HIV) is greater.

"Since they do their job in a hurry they cause bleeding to pilgrims. Then from the same razor they shave another guy and put him at risk of contracting some deadly disease through blood contact," said Dr. Naseem Ahmad.

Some pilgrims are also not happy. "Yes, I know I should not use the services of these guys," said Nafees Ahmad, a Jeddah-based Indian executive. "But I wanted to come out of ihram after stoning the Jamrat. I got my head shaved by these people and left everything at the mercy of the Almighty."

An Indian journalist, Arshad Faridi, suggested that the Health Ministry consider finding a way to educate these men and encourage them to be safe even if what they're doing is illegal.

"Demand for barbers at Mina is very high and it can't be met through government agencies," said Faridi. "And so these people come into the scene. Of course, their main aim is to make quick money, but if they were trained properly and instructed to use standard shaving kits that would help greatly."

Saleh Abdur Rahman, a spokesman for the municipality, initially declined to comment but later said that the task of monitoring these barbers was formidable. "It's not possible to man every inch of space in Mina," he said. "Our patrolling teams are on the ground in Mina, particularly in the Jamrat area, and when officers see them, these 'seasonal barbers' just vanish into the crowd."

So perhaps this serves as a warning to pilgrims. Next year: Consider bringing your own razor blade in your check-in luggage.

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