Cairo: Arab Health Ministers decided in a late night meeting on Thursday 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.
The ministers, however, stopped short of calling for the cancellation this year of the hajj — a duty for all Muslims in their lifetime — which attracts about three 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 following peak flu season will fuel the outbreak of the deadly disease. The ministers hope to blunt the possibility of contagion by exclude those most vulnerable to the influenza.
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.
So far, an Egyptian woman has died from the disease, after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
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.
Egypt is the only country in the world that responded to the threat of the disease by culling its estimated 300,000 pigs raised mainly by Coptic Christians.
There has been a great deal of discussion in Egypt and across the Middle East over skipping hajj this year to avoid exacerbating the threat of the disease. Thursday`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.