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Mystery British infection traced to self-flagellation during Shia mourning ceremony

Shia Muslims worldwide participate in Ashoura mourning rituals, but not all self-flagellate [NurPhoto]

Date of publication: 14 March, 2019

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A mystery infection discovered in 10 British men has been found to have been caused by unsanitary practices while self-flagellating during Shia Muslim Ashoura mourning ceremonies, researchers said on Wednesday.

Puzzled researchers said on Wednesday they discovered how ten British men were infected with a rare virus in the UK.

Investigators learned that all ten men had participated in blood-shedding religious rituals in Iraq, Pakistan, India and the UK, AP reported.

Self-flagellation - the practice of cutting or whipping oneself - has been practiced among various religious groups, but most notably by some Shia Muslims on the holy day of Ashoura.

Despite its prevalence, the practice is controversial.

"The practice of tatbir, as self-flagellation is known in Shia theology, is actually not a unanimously accepted tradition," Middle East researcher Tallha Abdulrazaq told The New Arab, adding that the practice did not become widespread until the 10th century.

"For this reason, and others related to protecting the reputation of Shiism as well as the Islamic prohibition on self-harm, some notable Shia clerics have forbidden the practice. Nevertheless, in many Shia communities it has become deeply ingrained in their culture after centuries of practice, and unfortunately this has also led to the harming of children, with videos released from Iraq last Ashoura showing adults cutting their children so they can participate in the rituals," he said.

Dr. Divya Dhasmana of St. Mary's Hospital in London said:  "There have been suggestions that [self-flagellation] might spread infections... but it has never been described" in a published medical study.

The men were infected with human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1), and while most infected people show no symptoms it can lead to devastating diseases - such as a deadly blood cancer or a debilitating nervous system condition - for others.

Up to 10 million people are infected with HLTV-1 worldwide, - which generally spreads through breastfeeding, sexual intercourse, blood transfusions and sharing needles - however, cases are extremely rare in the US and UK.

The men, who did not show any systems of the virus, were diagnosed coincidentally, through tests proceeding blood donations or in vitro fertilisation procedures.

The case was referred to St. Mary's Hospital, where researchers were puzzled as to how the men had become infected.

Once Dr. Dhasmana noticed scars on one patient's back, with further questioning leading to the discovery that all ten men had practiced self-flagellation rituals, some of which involve striking the forehead with a knife and then passing it along to other men.

One man said that the blades being passed around had been soaked in a bucket containing antiseptic solution - an inadequate way to prevent the spread of HTLV-1, Dr. Dhasmana explained.

An annual commemoration mourning the 7th century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, one of Shia Islam's most beloved figures, Ashoura is followed by the second largest annual public gathering, Arbaeen, with a commemoration held annually in Iraq attended by millions of pilgrims.

Usually only men participate in self-flagellation, and it remains a controversial issue even within Shia religious communities.

Dhasmana said: "Our message is not 'Don't do it.' Our message is 'If you do it, don't share equipment.'"

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