First swine flu death among pilgrims to Mecca

Cairo, Egypt - An Egyptian woman of 25 years died of swine flu after visiting Mecca. It is the first reported case of death from health authorities in Cairo, but also the first victim among Muslims pilgrims who in these days are visiting the holy city of Islam on the umra pilgrimage.

The woman, after having shown flu symptoms was subjected to special treatment by the Saudi health authorities, however, she failed to respond. At the behest of her husband she was sent to Egypt where she died yesterday.

In the Gulf and the Middle East area, the H1N1 virus has so far seen fewer cases than other areas of the world affected by the pandemic. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two most affected countries: Riyadh has declared 232 cases, Cairo 117.

Muslim faithful are currently arriving in Mecca for the umra or minor pilgrimage, that can be made at any time of year. In recent days, Muslim religious authorities in different countries have suggested the faithful most at risk of infection to postpone the trip.

What concerns the clergy however is above all the next hajj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, which in 2009 falls between November and December. Millions of pilgrims are expected to flock to Mecca from more than 160 countries and the pandemic is giving rise to fear among Saudi authorities.

The Koranic law allows sick faithful delegate others to make the pilgrimage, considered an obligation of faith, on their behalf. Saudi Arabia has called on young people, pregnant women and elderly to leave the Hajj for this year. But among the Muslim clergy in different countries there is ongoing debate about the need to issue an ad hoc edict addressing the problem of swine flu.

Mohammaed Hussein Fadlallah, the Shiite Grand Ayatollah of Lebanon, an authority for more than 1.2 million faithful, has issued a fatwa to reiterate that the pilgrimage to Mecca is a "divine duty", but that “those who are at risk of contracting the disease ... or are in a state of severe psychological fear for infection are exempt for 2009 from visiting the holy city”.