Saudi Arabia fears Hajj swine flu outbreak as four pilgrims die

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Millions make the annual Mecca pilgrimage.
Image: Ali Mansuri.

As the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca gets underway, Saudi Arabian authorities have expressed concern swine flu could impact pilgrims. Four, with underlying health issues, have already died.

Two men and a woman in their seventies and a seventeen-year-old girl have died, according to the Health Ministry. The men from India and Sudan, the older woman from Morocco, and the teen from Nigeria. None were vaccinated against the virus.

One died in Mecca, the others in Medina. All had conditions including cancer and respiratory ailments. The World Health Organisation puts the current swine flu death toll at 6,750. Four more people are in Saudi hospitals in critical condition and a further twelve are recovering in hospital.

Each year around three million make the pilgrimage. And, Saudi authorities are concerned about the possible spread of the virus. At least one pilgrimage to Mecca is deemed mandatory for every Muslim capable of doing so. Fifteen thousand extra medical staff are deployed, ports and airports screen incomers with thermal cameras, and hundreds of extra hospital beds have been set aside. Visa requirements specify only those vaccinated against the flu strain can apply.

In September, Egypt forbade hundreds of Muslims from leaving Cairo for the Hajj after an Egyptian woman returning from a more minor pilgrimage last July became the first swine flu fatality in both Africa and the Middle East. For Ramadan, pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia was banned by Iran for the same reason.


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