Saudis dismiss Hajj swine flu fears but other states worry

Posted at 09/16/09 7:02 PM

DUBAI - Saudi Arabia has dismissed fears of swine flu striking the hundreds of thousands of Muslims expected normally to perform the Hajj (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 on Tuesday that there was no danger of a major outbreak during the pilgrimage in November.

"Not a single death was recorded" among pilgrims of the Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage), since the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which started on August 22, said the committee.

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

Not all countries in the region are convinced.

Egypt has warned that it could ban its nationals from going to the Hajj over any risk from swine flu.

"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.

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."

Arab health ministers in July recommended that Muslims over the age of 65 and under 12 should not go on the pilgrimage, while pregnant women and people with chronic diseases are also advised to stay away.

"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 on Al-Arabiya satellite TV, Madani said 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.

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.

Egyptian cleric Mahmoud Ashour cited a precedent for any ban on Egyptians attending the Hajj. Such a ban was imposed in 1947 due to a cholera epidemic, a former official at Azhar, the highest Sunni authority, told Al-Arabiya.