Restrictions at Hajj pilgrimage to prevent spread of virus
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Arab health ministers have agreed to ban young children, people over 65 and those suffering from chronic illnesses from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in order to contain the spread of swine flu.
AFP - Arab health ministers agreed on Wednesday to ban certain people including the elderly and young children from pilgrimage to Mecca in an effort to contain the spread of swine flu.
"Hajj and umrah will continue with some conditions," Ibrahim al-Kerdani, World Health Organisation spokesman in Egypt, said after a meeting of Arab health ministers in Cairo.
"Some groups will be excluded from hajj: people over the age of 65, people under the age of 12 and people with chronic illnesses," he told reporters.
The decision to keep the vulnerable groups away from the pilgrimage is yet to be ratified by the health ministers' governments, he said.
Hussein Gezairi, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, predicted that Riyadh would ratify the recommendations, adding there was a "consensus" among the health ministers at the meeting.
"The Saudi government will make (these conditions) a requirement... No one will get their visa unless these requirements are fulfilled," he said.
Saudi Health Minister Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Rabeeah said the conservative kingdom would not restrict the number of visas it issues for pilgrims.
"We did not change the percentage of any country, we changed certain rules," he told reporters..
"It's up to the country to replace (applicants who fall under the restrictions) with" other pilgrims, he said. He added that there would "probably" be fewer pilgrims this year.
As well as the annual hajj, which all Muslims are required to make once in a lifetime if they have the means, the faithful can also make a lesser pilgrimage to the holy places, known as umrah, at any time of the year.
Upwards of two million people are expected in Saudi Arabia over the next five months on pilgrimages to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the west of the kingdom.
On Monday, Egypt became the latest country to warn vulnerable Muslims against pilgrimage to Mecca, after an Egyptian woman back from Saudi Arabia became the first swine flu death in the Middle East and Africa.
Egyptian health officials have said all returning pilgrims will be quarantined.
In Iran, a health ministry official on Tuesday repeated calls for elderly Iranians and children to avoid travelling to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage as the number of confirmed swine flu cases in the Islamic republic rose to 16.
Saudi Arabia in June warned elderly Muslims and pregnant women against undertaking the hajj because of the threat of swine flu. Oman issued a similar warning on July 6.
Tunisia earlier this month suspended umrah pilgrimages because of the virus, while reserving judgement on whether the main hajj pilgrimage should be undertaken in November.
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