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Wed 29 Jul 2009 09:07 PM

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Saudi hopes to limit flu spread at hajj pilgrimage

Thermal cameras to be used and more medics to be placed on stand-by to limit H1N1 spread.

Saudi Arabia says it will use thermal cameras and have more medics on stand-by as part of measures to limit H1N1 flu during the hajj pilgrimage, but does not expect to stop the spread of the virus completely.Around 3 million pilgrims from more than 160 countries take part in the hajj in Mecca most years, including up to 2 million who come from abroad. They mostly arrive by air in Jeddah.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia announced its first death from H1N1, a 30-year-old Saudi man in Dammam on the other side of the vast desert country. Saudi Arabia has reported nearly 300 cases.

"The World Health Organization clearly said that the time for preventing the disease from entering into the country is gone," said Ziad Memish, assistant deputy minister for preventative medicine at the Ministry of Health.

"So efforts should be focused on limiting the disease from spreading within the country ie. social hygiene, wearing masks, etc."

Arab health ministers agreed last week to try to prevent over-65s and under-12s from travelling to Saudi Arabia to take part in what is a lucrative money-earner for the country's western region.

Saudi Arabia has not said whether it will abide by the decision.

"This is currently pending with the higher authority for approval," Memish said, referring to King Abdullah.

Jeddah's hajj airport terminal will have 20 thermal sensors to check pilgrims and 20 percent more specialist medical staff than last year, Mohamed Al-Harthi, health manager at Jeddah airport, said.

The team of 550 people will include doctors, nurses, lab technicians and pharmacists.

Saudi Arabia has increased its stock of the antiviral drug Tamiflu by 20 percent, double the WHO recommendation for other countries, and urged pilgrims to take seasonal vaccines as well as the new H1N1 vaccine once available in the coming months.

"The thermal cameras are not 100 percent effective. We know that 30 or 40 percent of the patients could be incubating and will pass by the camera and show symptoms a few days later," Memish said. He added the sensors would stop up to 70 percent of the infected cases that could enter the country.

The Health Ministry will also set up health centres near the Jeddah and Medina airports with capacity to house up to 500 patients who will be sent there for treatment during their incubation period of the infection, Memish said. (Reuters)

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