MIDDLE EAST: Swine flu to limit hajj pilgrimage for elderly and young
To curtail the spread of swine flu, Arab health ministers from across the Middle East have agreed that elderly, young and chronically ill Muslims should be forbidden from traveling to Saudi Arabia for the upcoming hajj and umrah pilgrimages.
The decision came after a meeting of health ministers from Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan in Cairo late Wednesday, which was part of a special session of the Regional Committee for World Health Organization on the H1N1 flu virus. Those banned from making the pilgrimage include anyone over 65 and under 12, as well as pregnant women and the chronically ill.
"Hajj and umrah will continue but with some conditions," the WHO's spokesman in Egypt, Ibrahim Kerdani, said after the ministers' meeting. "Some groups will be excluded."
Kerdani confirmed that in addition to the age restrictions, anyone suffering from long-standing heart, kidney, diabetic, liver or blood pressure diseases will not be granted visas to enter Saudi Arabia for the coming holy season. Egypt witnessed the first swine flu death in the Middle East and Africa when a 25-year-old woman passed away last week. She was infected with the virus a few days earlier while performing the umrah pilgrimage in Mecca and Medina.
More than 3 million Muslims are expected to visit Saudi Arabia for umrah during Ramadan, which begins in August, as well as the hajj in November. Some in the Arab news media have called on Saudi Arabia to cancel this year's hajj, but the kingdom has resisted such pressure.
The hajj has a fixed annual season according to the Islamic calendar, but umrah can be performed any time of the year. However, many Muslims prefer to carry it out during Ramadan, and countries have started taking precautions ahead of the hectic pilgrimage term to mitigate the spread of swine flu threat.
Iranian authorities have repeated calls for the elderly and children to avoid traveling to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage. The Saudi kingdom and the sultanate of Oman warned pregnant women against taking the hajj this year. Tunisia and Sudan have reserved their final verdict on whether the hajj should be undertaken this year.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Millions gather annually for the hajj and umrah pilgrimage. Credit: BBC