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Sat 25 Jul 2009 05:01 PM

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No change to hajj quotas with flu curbs - Riyadh

Saudi authorities each year set the number of people a country can send on the hajj.

No change to hajj quotas with flu curbs - Riyadh
(Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia is likely to ban the elderly and children from the hajj this year to limit the risk of swine flu, but this will not change country quotas for the pilgrimage, a health official said on Saturday.

Dr. Khaled Marghlani, spokesman for the Saudi health ministry, said the government is expected to implement recommendations to block people older than 65 and younger than 12 from the hajj made during an emergency summit for Arab health ministers in Cairo on Wednesday.

But national quotas for the annual pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which takes place in late November this year, would not change, he told AFP.

"This will not touch on the quotas, the percentage of pilgrims" allocated each country, he said.

"When we implement the new law, it will stay as it is."

Close to two million people were originally expected to arrive this year for the hajj, a requisite act for Muslims in their lifetime if they have the means.

Saudi authorities each year set the number of people a country can send on the hajj based on the size of their Muslim population.

But the spread of the A(H1NI) flu, with already around 300 cases diagnosed in Saudi Arabia, has worried officials of possible mass outbreaks during the two-week period.

Many people have cancelled plans to undertake the minor pilgrimage, the umrah, which is most popular during summer holidays and the Ramadan period in August-September, tour agents and Mecca hoteliers interviewed by AFP said.

On Wednesday, health ministers from 22 Arab countries held an emergency session in Cairo together with officials from the World Health Organisation to address the swine flu threat to the hajj, one of the world's largest annual mass movements of people.

The rapid spread of the disease, which has killed some 800 people worldwide, had sparked fears the pilgrimage would be cancelled or severely curtailed.

Among numerous steps adopted by the ministers was a proposal to ban pilgrims older than 65 and younger than 12.

Marghlani said the proposal will be formally made to the Saudi government, and he expected it will be adopted.

It isn't clear how the ban would affect the total number of pilgrims from abroad.

For instance Indonesia, which has a quota of 200,000 this year, had already set a minimum age of 18, and only 0.5 percent of their pilgrims are older than 65, according to officials in the Indonesian embassy in Riyadh.

Marghlani meanwhile said an Egyptian woman who died from swine flu after returning from an umrah trip to Saudi Arabia likely contracted the disease in her home country.

The husband of the woman, the region's first reported A(H1N1) death, criticised Saudi authorities' handling of her case.

But Marghlani said the woman tested negative for swine flu during hospital treatment inside Saudi Arabia for other ailments, and had also had cleared airport health checks in Cairo.

"She came with a lot of symptoms" including artery blockages and signs of pneumonia, he said, but not the flu.

The woman also performed the strenuous rituals four times -- for various members of her family -- rather than once as is normal, he said.

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