07/23/2009, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Swine flu pushes authorities to warn pilgrims to be prudent about pilgrimage to Makkah

Officials from Muslim states agree to precautionary measures. Saudis will not however cut national quotas. About three million faithful make umrah each year.
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Health officials from Muslim countries have agreed that high-risk groups such as the elderly, young children and the chronically ill should be advised to avoid making the hajj or the lesser umrah pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah. The main reason is the A-H1N1 flu. Hussein Gezairi, the WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, said he expected Riyadh to ratify the recommendations.

Around three million Muslim pilgrims from over 160 countries head for Makkah in Saudi Arabia each year. The country’s authorities said that they have a security plan in place but Abdullah al-Rabeeah, the Saudi health minister, said on Wednesday the kingdom has no plans to restrict the number of visas it issues for pilgrims, though numbers are expected to be lower.

"We did not change the percentage of any country, we changed certain rules,” he said.

Under existing rules the host country sets national quotas for pilgrims and each country decides how best to sent its pilgrims.

"It's up to the country to replace [applicants who fall under the restrictions] with" other pilgrims.

Gezairi said the Saudi government was well equipped to deal with communicable diseases among the large number of annual pilgrims because “Arabia every year receives between 25 and 30 cases of cholera and no epidemics are happening."

Still more and more countries urge their nationals not to make the umrah, which typically occurs during the month of Ramadan, which this year starts in August.

High risk countries include Saudi Arabia, Gulf states, Lebanon, Iran, Tunisia and last but not least Egypt.

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