With many Moroccans intending to make the trip to Mecca for the Hajj, here is a timely warning from the Saudi government about the risks of swine flu.
Saudi Arabia is prepared to welcome some three million pilgrims during the annual Hajj to Makkah in December amid the heightened alert on the swine flu pandemic, a top Saudi official said Monday. Ziad Bin Ahmed Memish of the health ministry said despite the level six alert on the A(H1N1) virus, “Saudi Arabia has decided to hold the great gatherings in Makkah and Madinah,” Islam’s holiest sites and the destination for annual pilgrimages by devout Muslims. He was speaking on the sidelines of a meeting of the east Mediterranean regional committee of the World Health Organisation, being held in the Moroccan city of Fez through Thursday. How to handle the threat of swine flu during the major Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the key topics at the conference attended by 22 health ministers and the head of the UN health agency Margaret Chan. “We currently have in our possession more than four million doses of vaccine and our hospitals are well equipped to handle swine flu,” the Saudi health official said.
He pointed out that Saudi Arabia had been put to the swine flu test at the umrah or minor pilgrimage during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August-September. “We only had 26 cases of infections among two million pilgrims,” he said.
Some two million foreigners and possibly as many Saudis are expected to descend on Makkah and Madinah for the Hajj, which takes place in the middle of the northern hemisphere’s winter flu season.
Saudis have called for Hajj pilgrims to get normal flu shots and, if vaccines are available in time, specific swine flu inoculations as well.
Health officials in the Arab world at a meeting in Cairo in July advised that Muslims older than 65 and younger than 12 as well as people with chronic illnesses should not make the pilgrimage to Makkah this year.
Saudi Arabia has to date reported 9,000 cases of swine flu and 35 deaths from the disease, one of the highest levels of contamination in the Arab world, officials said.