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Tue 10 Nov 2009 12:55 PM

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Pilgrims snub flu, flock to Saudi Arabia

About 580,000 pilgrims have so far arrived to the Western region of Saudi Arabia, site of the two holy cities.

Standing in the middle of a long queue at Jeddah airport, Mahdi Sharif is one of millions of Muslims waiting to enter Saudi Arabia to start the annual haj pilgrimage despite a global outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

Little fazed by the spread of the virus, Sharif, who has been waiting for two years to be selected from a raffle of 5,000 Kurdish Iraqis to visit Mecca, wears a protection mask but never thought for a second of delaying his pilgrimage.

"This year I was chosen so I came, I could not say no. The happiness of being chosen is stronger than fear (of illness)," said Sharif in a muffled voice through his medical mask.

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the virus a pandemic in June, experts feared that the 3 million pilgrims, from over 160 countries, congregating around Mecca's holy sites this month will aid in the transmission of the virus, initiate waves of outbreaks worldwide and strain healthcare systems.

In June, the Saudi authorities advised persons over 65 and under 12, as well as people suffering from terminal illness, and pregnant women, to postpone their pilgrimage. Several Muslim countries also imposed similar restrictions on their pilgrims and Tunisia barred its citizens from this year's ritual.

About 580,000 pilgrims have so far arrived to the Western region of Saudi Arabia, site of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, in preparation for the pilgrimage that will start on November 26.

Saudi authorities have tightened health measures at the airports and sea port where pilgrims arrive.

At Jeddah airport the Health Ministry increased medical staff by 22 percent from the previous year to 568 that includes doctors, nurses, lab technicians and pharmacists.

Upon arrival, pilgrims pass by thermal censors installed at the end of each jetway to detect their temperature. If a pilgrim was found to have a temperature above 38 degrees, an alarm will sound and the pilgrim will be taken aside for examination.

"If the fever is accompanied by symptoms of the flu ... they will take a swab and confirm the case either negative or positive. If found positive, they will keep him under observation for five days and give him treatment," said Mohamed Al-Harti, health manager at King Abdulaziz airport.

King Saud Hospital in Jeddah, created especially to cater for H1N1 cases during the haj, currently has up to 300 beds but officials say that no confirmed cases have been recorded yet.

Health authorities have stopped announcing the number of people who have caught the virus but there are 66 deaths related to the virus in Saudi Arabia so far.

This month, the authorities approved a GlaxoSmithKline's vaccine for the H1N1 virus and launched a national vaccination campaign among its population of nearly 25 million people. (Reuters)

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