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Swine flu threat looms over Haj

world Updated: Nov 29, 2009 01:23 IST
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Millions of Muslim pilgrims, many wearing surgical masks, jostled together shoulder-to-shoulder furiously casting pebbles at stone walls representing the devil Saturday — the Haj ritual of highest concern to world health authorities watching for an outbreak of swine flu.

The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 3 million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world and an ideal incubator for the H1N1 flu virus.

So far, only around 60 flu cases have been uncovered, but health officials warn it is likely spreading silently among pilgrims — and the true extent of the push that Haj has given to the virus won't be known until later, after the faithful have returned to their home countries around the world.

Saudi officials, along with American and international health experts, have geared up here to try to limit any outbreak. But they also are using the pilgrimage as a test case to build a database, watch for mutations and look for lessons on controlling the flu at other large gatherings like the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa.

The stoning of the devil ritual, performed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, is when the crowds of pilgrims at the five-day Haj are at their height and contact between them is closest.

Like many here, Mikail Ocasio, a 28-year-old pilgrim from Maryland, dismissed the swine flu worries. “No disease was going to stop me from making my Haj,” he said.

Health authorities hung posters of correct hand washing, and hand sanitiser dispensers were placed on walls in the camps, near public bathrooms and at ritual sites.

So far, four pilgrims have died from swine flu since arriving in Saudi Arabia.

Flood toll 106

Saudi Arabia’s civil defence authority on Saturday raised the toll from this week’s flash floods caused by heavy downpours to 106.