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Saudi faces rising swine flu threat from Muslim pilgrims

world Updated: Jun 18, 2009 17:52 IST

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Saudi Arabia is gearing up for a possible outbreak of swine flu among Muslim pilgrims to Mecca after the first case in the holy city was detected in a Malaysian boy, a senior health official said.

The nine year old boy was found with his family in a hotel near Mecca's Grand Mosque and referred to a local hospital after tests showed he was infected with the A(H1N1) flu virus, the health ministry said.

His was one 1of five new cases announced on Wednesday, taking the total to 22 since the disease first appeared in the kingdom on June 3.

The case underscored the threat of an outbreak of the disease among the more than two million Muslims expected to arrive in the country from around the world during the August-December pilgrimage season, health ministry spokesman Khaled Marghlani said.

Host to Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, the Saudi government is already working with experts from the World Health Organisation and other international organisations to finalise a plan for dealing with the threat, Marghlani told AFP on Wednesday.

"The whole world is worried about it," he said. "We are trying very hard. The people coming here are guests of Allah."

The health ministry has stockpiled doses of the antiviral medication Tamiflu equivalent to 10 percent of the country's 25.3 million population, he said.

Commercial pharmacies have been reporting heavy sales of the drug as well amid rising public concern, according to media reports.

Tamiflu is effective in treating swine flu in its early stages.

Before the Malaysian boy's case, members of a Mauritanian family visiting Medina from Canada were diganosed with A(H1N1), underscoring the threat that already exists from the thousands of off-season pilgrims undertaking the umrah, or minor pilgrimage.

The government expects the threat to rise dramatically when the umrah season picks up in late August, during the fasting month of Ramadan, and then with the main hajj pilgrimage in late November, Marghlani said.

The hajj sees some 1.7 million people from around the world jam into Mecca and Medina for a two-week period, most of them arriving through the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

Marghlani said Saudi Arabia already has a well-organised health plan for prevention and then care of disease among pilgrims.

"The hajj and umrah have a pretty sophisticated surveillance system," he said, adding that there have been no major disease outbreaks among pilgrims in recent years.

For swine flu, the health ministry expects to finalise its plans with the WHO this month. The kingdom is already inspecting airport arrivals with thermal cameras.

However, the recent infections underscore the challenge.

The Malaysian boy and a Saudi student arriving from the United States on June 7 were detected with feverish temperatures by thermal equipment at Jeddah airport.

But for unexplained reasons both were able to continue travelling -- the student taking another domestic flight -- before finally being contacted by health officials and taken to hospital.

In addition, some of the newest infections are hospital staff who came in contact with the infected patients, the health ministry said.