Swine flu keeps Muslim pilgrims at home

Far fewer Muslims than normal are undertaking the lesser pilgrimage known as 'Umrah' because of coordinated efforts by health ministers in the Gulf and beyond to counter the spread of H1N1 2009.



The numbers are some 30 percent down on normal levels and a variety of precautions are in place.



According to a 23 August World Health Organization update, there were 3,128 laboratory-confirmed cases of pandemic H1N1 reported in the Eastern Mediterranean Region.



Saudi Arabia had the highest number of cases with 595 and four deaths, followed by Kuwait with 560 cases and no deaths, and Egypt with 509 cases and one death.



However, WHO figures are far more conservative than those of local governments. Earlier this week, the Saudi Health Ministry reported that its H1N1 cases had reached 2,000, with 14 deaths, and the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) reported 1,072 cases and two fatalities in Kuwait.



WHO has expressed concern that there may be a second wave of the virus because of the approaching cooler season.




























































































































Eastern Mediterranean Region


Country

Total laboratory-confirmed cases reported by the state parties



Total deaths reported by the state parties


Afghanistan32 0
Bahrain830

Egypt


5091

Iran


2380
Iraq961
Jordan1380

Kuwait


5600

Lebanon


3521
Libya180

Morocco


1090
Oman1230
Pakistan20

Palestine


1161
Qatar231

Saudi Arabia


5954
Sudan20
Syria170
Tunisia190
UAE790
Yemen171
TOTAL3,12810

Source: WHO (as of 23 August)



Precautions




The authorities in the Middle East have urged Muslims to avoid the 'Hajj' in late November and 'Umrah', if possible, and have banned travel there for those below 12 or over 65, as well as for pregnant women and those suffering from chronic diseases such as uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, bronchial diseases and obesity.



Iran has banned all its citizens from making the 'Umrah' pilgrimage this year and has cancelled all flights to Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, which ends around 19 September.



Airports and border crossings in the region have installed flu surveillance equipment and quarantine procedures, and pandemic H1N1 awareness campaigns are widespread. Health ministries have advised people to avoid large gatherings, whether religious or not, and to avoid the social custom of kissing and shaking hands at gatherings.



The United Arab Emirates, which recorded its first H1N1 death on 21 August, is considering reducing the duration of Friday sermons in mosques and the daily 'Tarawih' prayers that occur only in Ramadan.



Mecca and Medina



'Hajj' and 'Umrah' tour operators are worried about the impact on their businesses. Some have said governments have over-reacted to what is, so far, not a particularly lethal virus. Tour operators across the region have complained of mass cancellations of 'Hajj' and 'Umrah' trips and have said they stand to lose millions of dollars because of commitments already made to Mecca hotels.



In Mecca, business could fall by 40 percent during Ramadan, according to the Mecca Chamber of Commerce, and in neighbouring Medina, officials said they expected business to be down by 70 percent.



A panel of experts is being set up in Mecca specifically to deal with the H1N1 virus for 'Hajj' and 'Umrah' pilgrims. Saad Al-Qurashi, chairman of the National Hajj & Umrah Committee, told Arab News that the panel would be distributing surgical masks to 'Umrah' pilgrims and would hold workshops to spread awareness of the necessary precautions to be taken.



ed/cb