Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Saudi health authorities have decided to restrict the number of visas issued for hajj and umrah pilgrimages in 2013in order to prevent the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), a cousin of SARS. So far, the virus has killed 45 people (38 of them in the Islamic Kingdom).
The General Health Directorate (DGS), which runs the Health Ministry, issued a circular to this effect. In a statement posted on its website on Saturday, the Saudi health ministry urged people in certain categories not to perform hajj.
"Elderly persons, pregnant women, children and people affected by chronic diseases, notably people with cardiac, diabetic or respiratory disease, kidney or immune-system deficiencies, will be unable to obtain a visa this year," the circular said.
However, the statement was unclear as to how restrictions would be implemented or what the age limits would be.
MERS-CoV is related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a virus in the coronavirus family that caused a pneumonia-like outbreak in Asia in 2003.
The World Health Organisation has not recommended any MERS-CoV-related travel restrictions, but noted that countries should monitor unusual respiratory infection patterns.
This and the recent outbreak on its territory have prompted Saudi Arabia to restrict hajj.
The latter is the fifth pillar of Islam. Making the great pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the duties every able-bodied Muslim should perform at least once in his or her lifetime if they can afford it.
The Umrah is a non-compulsory pilgrimage to Makkah that Muslims can undertake at any time of the year. It is sometimes called the 'minor' or 'lesser pilgrimage', the Hajj being the 'major' pilgrimage held in the last month in the Islamic calendar.
Every year, millions of Muslims gather in Makkah for the Great Pilgrimage. In 2012, the total number exceeded 3 million. The hajj this year will fall between 8 and 13 October.