RIYADH: Restricting Haj pilgrims to those between the ages of 12 and 65
will soon be a definite condition for the forthcoming Haj season, Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah said in a statement on Wednesday. Al-Rabeeah said the proposal had been sent to the Cabinet for formal approval and would be forwarded to Saudi missions for action concerning the issuance of Haj visas.
Al-Rabeeah, who is on a visit to Tunis, said the new measures would not affect countries' Haj quotas. The minister said the proposal was based on decisions taken at a meeting of swine flu experts held in Jeddah and at an emergency meeting of Arab health ministers that took place in Cairo last month. To date, more than 600 people in the Kingdom have been affected with swine flu with six deaths caused by the infection.
In addition to the age restrictions, Haj visas will not be given to pregnant women or to those who are chronically ill with heart, kidney, liver, lung, diabetes, obesity and hypertension problems. The minister said that overseas Saudi missions would instruct Haj operators to inform pilgrims of the current requirements and advise them to follow the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health.
He said that pilgrims taking part in the circumambulation, stoning of devil at Jamrat and the standing at Arafat would be required to wear face masks in order to reduce the risk of flu. Pilgrims must also be vaccinated two weeks prior to their departure for the holy cities. The minister said that the Kingdom had a comprehensive plan for Haj operations that also includes step to prevent the spread of the infectious disease.
Millions of pilgrims who flock to the Kingdom will be required to provide health certificates showing that they do not have chronic diseases. The country will also require pilgrims to show proof they have received flu shots at home, Khaled Al-Mirghalani, the Health Ministry's spokesman, said.
"These conditions have been approved after consultations with top international experts in the field," he added. "No one will be able to get a visa without fulfilling these new rules." Al-Rabeeah said that the conditions are "balanced, fair and scientific." He urged pilgrims to wear masks in crowded places, to sanitize their hands and to seek medical help if they have flu symptoms.
Calling on the international media to cooperate with the Kingdom in its efforts to control the flu, Al-Rabeeah said that the Kingdom had adequate medicines and facilities to cope with any emergency during the Haj. In addition to local preparations, the ministry has ordered four million vaccines expected to arrive in October.
Riyadh Al-Kheneini, deputy chief of mission at the Saudi Embassy in Colombo, said on Wednesday that the Saudi Foreign Ministry had not yet made any changes in the rules concerning the issuance of Umrah visas.
"We are still waiting for the new regulations for Haj," he added.
In another development, Bahrain registered its first swine flu case involving a Saudi on Wednesday. In all, six people tested positive taking the toll of H1N1 cases to 136 on the island. "This is the first case where a 28-year-old Saudi man from Jeddah is infected with the virus. He will be kept in isolation ward and quarantined," a Health Ministry spokesperson said.
A 16-year-old Bahraini boy who returned from Umrah was also among the six who tested positive. Since Monday, a Filipino, a Japanese and a Canadian citizen have tested positive for swine flu. All were coming to Bahrain from high-risk countries. All the patients have been kept in isolation at the Ebrahim Kanoo Health Center. Bahrain has recorded no swine flu fatalities.
The Ministry has stockpiled Tamiflu drugs at the government pharmacy to treat swine flu cases. Officials have also placed orders for powerful vaccines to protect Haj and Umrah pilgrim from cases that do not respond to Tamiflu medicine.
More than 200,000 doses of the vaccines are expected to arrive by October.
- With input from agencies