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Middle East

Swine flu hits Hajj pilgrimage

Arab health ministers have decided to ban children, the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions from attending the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia this year in effort to slow the spread of swine flu.

In a meeting in Cairo that ended late last night, the ministers, however, stopped short of calling for the cancellation of this year's hajj - a duty for all Muslims in their lifetime - which attracts about 3 million people every year to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The fear is that the close proximity of millions of people from around the world in late November, when the hajj takes place following peak flu season, will fuel the outbreak of the deadly disease. The ministers hope to blunt the possibility of contagion by excluding those most vulnerable to the influenza.

Global deaths from the H1N1 virus have doubled in the past three weeks, to over 700 from about 330, according to the World Health Organisation.

There are 952 reported cases in WHO's eastern Mediterranean region, which consists of the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan, excluding Israel.

Israel has 727 cases, according to WHO.

So far in the Arab world, an Egyptian woman died from the disease, after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The latest figures, however, may seriously underestimate the true toll because not all swine flu cases are being picked up due to testing limitations.

The race is now on to develop a vaccine that is effective against the pandemic strain before the flu season begins this fall in the northern hemisphere. Estimates for when a vaccine will be available range from September to December.

The ministers say if a vaccine is ready before the hajj, pilgrims will have to provide an immunisation report to obtain their visa for the pilgrimage.

They also demanded the WHO to set aside a quota of any future vaccine for developing countries.

There has been a great deal of debate in Egypt and across the Middle East over skipping hajj this year to avoid exacerbating the spread of the disease. Today's decision appears to be an attempt to head off such a controversial move.

"The (Egyptian) Health Ministry will take this decision if it poses danger on Egypt but we haven't reached this level yet," said Egyptian Health Minister Hatem al-Gibali said about cancelling the hajj, following the meeting, according to state news agency.

One of Sunni Islam's highest authorities, Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi of Al-Azhar, endorsed the Arab ministers decision to ban certain groups from performing hajj without cancelling the whole ritual, which is one of Islam's five pillars.

In Lebanon, the widely respected Shiite Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah decreed that Muslims who have serious concerns about contracting swine flu while performing pilgrimage may stay away this year but described hajj as "divine duty" and dismissed the idea of cancelling it altogether.

An editorial in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, however, still called on Saudi authorities to take the initiative and cancel it.

"Mecca receives millions of pilgrims and worshippers 24 hours a day, shoulder to shoulder ... and if one person carries the virus, he can spread it to a ten thousand others," the paper said, adding that the number of people visiting Saudi Arabia during the holy month of Ramadan in September and October should also be limited.