Elderly, kids urged to skip hajj over swine flu

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic diseases should stay away from the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia to prevent catching swine flu, health experts recommended Tuesday.

The recommendations come as some in the Muslim world have raised questions about the risk posed by swine flu to the millions attending the annual Muslim pilgrimage, which takes place this year in December, with some even suggesting quarantining people returning from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi kingdom invited experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and others to a four-day meeting in the western seaport city of Jiddah to examine Saudi measures to prevent the spread of swine flu during the Muslim pilgrimage.

In a statement at the conclusion of the conference, Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah said the kingdom invited the experts because "of concerns about the ongoing pandemic and the potential for transmission (of viruses) in the crowded setting of the hajj."

The pilgrimage is required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime. It attracts about 3 million people every year to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The climax of the hajj is a 4-day period during which people gather in and around Mecca to perform a series of rituals.

Hundreds of thousands more Muslims also perform Omra, the voluntary lesser pilgrimage that can be completed at any other time of the year.

The meeting came a few weeks after Egyptian Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali raised concerns about the possible spread of swine flu, and said the tens of thousands of Egyptians who perform the hajj risk being quarantined upon their return.

El-Gabali's remarks have drawn mixed reaction from top clerics in the Muslim world.

Some have said they would support the idea of a quarantine for returning pilgrims if the WHO declares a pandemic outbreak, which it did earlier this month.

Others, however, maintain it would represent a dereliction of Islamic duties unless sanctioned by religious authorities in Saudi Arabia.

The statement said the experts recommend that "the following high risk group for severe disease postpone their participation in hajj and Omra for this year: the elderly, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases and children to better ensure their health and well being."

They also urged that the kingdom maintain adequate screening for the virus at entry points used by pilgrims and that pilgrims receive flu shots at least two weeks before they travel to Mecca and Medina and the swine flu vaccine once it is available.

It also recommended that pilgrims adhere to "good personal hygiene measures, including cough etiquette, use of antiseptic hand gels and especially frequent hand washing with soap and water."

The number of cases of swine flu cases in the Arab world has been growing, with countries reporting cases - but so far no deaths - almost every day. Saudi Arabia announced six new cases on Tuesday, raising the total to 81.