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Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 10:47 UK

Swine flu fears prompt Hajj curbs

Thousands of people pray around the Kaaba, during the Hajj
Millions of people attend the annual Hajj, due this year in November.

Arab health ministers have agreed to prevent vulnerable groups joining this year's Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, because of fears over swine flu.

People aged over 65 and under 12, and those with chronic diseases, will be excluded from the event, a World Health Orgnization official said on Wednesday.

In June, Saudi Arabia asked elderly and sick Muslims not to visit this year.

At least two million people took part in the last Hajj, which falls this year in November.

The decision to keep the vulnerable groups away from the pilgrimage must still be ratified by the health ministers' governments, Ibrahim al-Kerdani of the WHO said.

Reduction expected

The decision was made at emergency talks in Cairo between health ministers from around the Muslim world and WHO officials.

Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah said his country would not reduce the number of visas it granted to pilgrims, but that he expected pilgrim numbers to be reduced this year.

The WHO says there are 952 cases of the virus - known as H1N1 in its Eastern Mediterranean region, which stretches from Afghanistan to Morocco.

The only death so far in the region was announced by Egypt on Sunday, and was a woman who had returned from a pilgrimage trip to Saudi Arabia.

As well as the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which all Muslims are required to make at least once if they have the means, the faithful can also make a lesser pilgrimage to Mecca, known as umra, at any time of year.

As of 6 July, there were more than 130,000 cases of swine flu worldwide, with more than 700 deaths from the virus.



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