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Wed 1 Jul 2009 06:50 AM

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Saudi issues Hajj warning amid rising swine flu cases

Health chiefs say pregnant women, elderly Muslims should avoid pilgrimage.

Saudi Arabia has warned elderly Muslims and pregnant women against undertaking the hajj pilgrimage this year as the threat of swine flu mounts.

The government has also pre-ordered millions of doses of vaccines being developed for the rapidly spreading H1NI flu so that, if ready, they can be administered around the kingdom ahead of the massive November-December global pilgrimage to Mecca.

"We always advise people with asthma, or pregnant women, or the elderly not to come on the hajj," ministry spokesman Dr Khaled Marghlani said.

This year the swine flu threat has made the warning more important and the government is stressing the danger to those groups of people, Marghlani said.

Marghlani said the country was hopeful that a swine flu vaccine could be readied ahead of the hajj, when more than 1.7 million pilgrims from all over the world descend on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Saudi Arabia has pre-ordered vaccine doses equivalent to 20 percent of the country's population of 25.3 million people, Marghlani said.

"We will be one of the first countries on the list" for the vaccine, he said.

He also said countries from which most Muslim pilgrims originate were being encouraged to order vaccine and put it to use on pilgrims if it is ready before the hajj.

On Monday the World Health Organisation put the global death toll from the H1N1 pandemic at 311 and total infections at 70,893.

The number of confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia rose by six to 81 on Tuesday, according to the ministry, including two Filipinos, one Indonesian and one Australian.

The government expects the swine flu threat to rise dramatically when the umrah - minor pilgrimage - season picks up in late August, during the fasting month of Ramadan and then with the hajj itself.

Several companies have developed potential vaccines for swine flu.

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