Saudi Arabia began vaccinating its population against swine flu on Saturday, with priority going to government employees working on the annual hajj pilgrimage that takes place later this month.

Health ministry officials were the first to receive the inoculation against A(H1N1), the official SPA news agency said.

It said the vaccine has also been distributed to all government bodies involved in the hajj, which sees some three million pilgrims descending on the Muslim holy city of Mecca, including around a million from within Saudi Arabia.

Local pilgrims will have the option to be vaccinated, it added.

The ministry said it is ready to combat the flu during the busy hajj season which peaks between November 25 and 29.

Saudi health authorities said earlier this month that the kingdom has received the first tranche of 11 million vaccine doses it has ordered.

The governments of several countries sending pilgrims on the hajj, including China and Egypt which see tens of thousands heading there each year, are vaccinating citizens making the journey.

Swine flu deaths in the kingdom reached 62 at the beginning of this month, most of them involving people with other health problems, said Dr Ziad Memish, assistant deputy health minister for preventive medicine.

There have been nearly 7,000 confirmed cases since the first was reported on June 3, while clinically diagnosed cases, which Memish said are more indicative of the presence of the disease, number between 22,000 and 23,000.