Page last updated at 16:32 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

UK Hajj pilgrims reassured after swine flu deaths

By Rahila Bano
BBC Asian Network

Muslim pilgrims' tent city at Mina, near Mecca
Many of the three million Muslims on the Hajj are staying in tents nearby

About 25,000 Britons on the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca have been reassured swine flu precautions are in place, despite the deaths of four pilgrims.

Saudi authorities have advised people aged over 65 and under 12, and those with chronic diseases, not to attend the event this year.

But three of the victims - a Moroccan woman and two men from Morocco and India - were in their 70s. The fourth victim was a 17-year-old Nigerian girl.

At least three million people are expected on the Hajj this year.

British delegation

"The Saudis have taken all the necessary precautions," said Dr Syed Moinuddin, the chief medical advisor to the British Hajj delegation.

"Everyone has been screened for the H1N1 virus upon arrival at Jeddah airport, and getting a flu vaccination was an essential requirement for this year's Hajj.

"That doesn't prevent swine flu but in preventing one type of virus infection, the body can be strong enough to fight other illnesses."

Dr Moinuddin heads a team of eight doctors who are responsible for helping any British Muslims who fall ill during the Hajj.

"We haven't come across any cases but if we do we have the facilities to refer them to the Saudis," he said.

Muslim pilgrims gather at Mecca's Grand Mosque
It's better to die there in the sacred city than anywhere else
Maryam Nadeen Ahmed

"They decided to be prepared to receive cases, assuming that three million people are going to come, so they are adequately equipped to receive any pandemic cases of swine flu."

The Saudi Health Ministry said none of the four foreign victims had been vaccinated against the H1N1 virus.

Three of the victims died in Medina and one in Mecca.

"I'm not bothered about it," says Sajid Mahmood from Leeds who has travelled to Mecca with his elderly mother, father and father-in-law.

"People are wearing masks so I'm not worried, although I'm not wearing one. I'm just happy to be here."

Saudi authorities have prepared for any possible outbreaks by setting up three clinics for people suspected of carrying the virus near where British pilgrims are staying.

They have also installed thermal cameras at airports and sea terminals, deployed 15,000 additional health workers and ensured hundreds of extra beds were available.

The Saudi government has said all pilgrims need a certificate of vaccination before they can apply for a visa.

Meanwhile Muslims in Manchester said that many people who had gone to the Hajj would have ignored advice issued by the Saudi government.

It advised the elderly, children and those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease to postpone their pilgrimage until next year.

Iqbal Khan Moghul, a civil servant, said: "The younger generation who are educated tend to listen to the advice but some of the older generation who don't understand and are illiterate don't listen."

A teenager from Stockport, Amaarah Ahmed, said: "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity and I think if someone gets it they are willing to ignore the advice."

Student Maryam Nadeen Ahmed added: "You're going for a good cause and it's better to die there in the sacred city than anywhere else."

Sherry Khalili, an executive member of the All Pakistan Women's Association said: "It's obligatory on every Muslim and once in a lifetime they have to go.

"It's also considered very 'mubarak' or a blessing if you pass away on Hajj.

"It's not a bad thing at all, people aren't afraid of death."

You can hear more on Asian Network Reports on weekdays at 1230 and 1800 GMT on the BBC Asian Network on DAB digital radio or online via BBC iplayer.

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