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Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 11:36 UK

Iran bans Mecca visits over flu

Pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (file image)
Millions of people take part in pilgrimages to Mecca every year

Iran has banned all pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in an attempt to contain the spread of swine flu.

Health officials said no Iranians would remain in Saudi Arabia after 22 August.

Mecca is a popular destination for Muslims undergoing the spiritual experience of fasting during Ramadan.

Arab health ministers have already agreed to prevent vulnerable groups of people from joining the larger Hajj pilgrimage, taking place in November.

"We will have no pilgrims in Saudi Arabia during the month of Ramadan," Health Minister Mohammad Bagher Lankarani was quoted as saying by the Isna news agency.

He said the high numbers of people travelling to the holy places during the holy month, beginning on about 22 August, increased the risk of the virus spreading and being brought back to Iran.

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Iranian state media said health officials were also setting up a system of checks for pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia.

In July, Arab health ministers said people aged over 65 and under 12, and those with chronic diseases, would be excluded from the main Hajj pilgrimage this year.

Saudi Arabia has itself also asked elderly and sick Muslims not to participate.

The World Health Organization says Iran has so far reported 144 cases of swine flu but no fatalities. Iran says 50% of cases were in people who had recently returned from Saudi Arabian pilgrimages.



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