Saudi dismisses Hajj swine flu fears

Arab states concerned as death toll rises

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Saudi Arabia dismissed concerns Wednesday over the risks of swine flu striking the hundreds of thousands of Muslims expected to perform the Hajj, or pilgrimage, in Mecca despite other Arab nations' concerns over the A(H1N1) virus.

Twenty-six people have died from the flu in the kingdom but the Saudi Committee for Contagious Diseases said that there was no danger of a major outbreak during the pilgrimage in November.

It said "not a single death was recorded" among pilgrims of the Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, since the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which started on Aug. 22.

"All the patients (of H1N1) among the pilgrims and visitors have recovered, which confirms the absence of the pandemic. The health situation is totally reassuring," a committee statement said in Riyadh.

But not all countries in the region are convinced and some have sought to discourage citizens from the annual rite.

Egypt has warned that it could ban its nationals from going to the Hajj over any risk from swine flu. Performing the annual pilgrimage once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars, or obligations, of Islam.

"A decision could be taken at any moment to ban the Hajj this season if the situation so requires," Egyptian Health Minister Hatem al-Gabaly said.

Arab health ministers recommended in July that Muslims over the age of 65 and under 12 should not go on the pilgrimage. Pregnant women and people with chronic diseases were also advised not to perform Hajj this year.

All the patients among the pilgrims and visitors have recovered, which confirms the absence of the pandemic

Saudi Committee for Contagious Diseases

Fewer pilgrims expected

Experts expected a drop in the number of pilgrims visiting the holy sites during Hajj because of fears over swine flu and advised pilgrims to get vaccinated in advance.

"Muslims should be vaccinated (against seasonal flu) in their countries of origin, and this vaccine should be taken 10 days before arrival in Saudi Arabia," said Tarek Madani, a Saudi academic.

In an interview on Monday night, Madani told Al Arabiya he expected a drop in the number of Hajj pilgrims due to the flu.

An official in Cairo earlier gave a similar forecast -- of a 30 to 40 percent fall in Egyptian pilgrim numbers, due to travel restrictions aimed at preventing spread of the flu.

In Tunisia, the authorities have called on the pilgrims to "take reason and responsibility into consideration before making a final decision and to postpone the pilgrimage until next year."

Meanwhile, some Gulf countries continue to register deaths from the flu. Oman on Tuesday reported that two more people had died, bringing to 18 the total number of deaths in that country.

A total of 61 people have died from swine flu in the six Gulf countries, which have a combined population of 36 million, a majority of whom are foreigners.

(With AFP)

Muslims should be vaccinated (against seasonal flu) in their countries of origin, and this vaccine should be taken 10 days before arrival in Saudi Arabia

Tarek Madani, Saudi academic