- Saudi Arabia has had to contend with the threat of bird
flu as well as heightened security fears at the start of this year's hajj
pilgrimage, which began on Sunday.
- Officials in the kingdom have been on high alert after
warnings from health experts that the gathering at Mecca, Islam's birthplace,
of more than 2m pilgrims from around the Muslim world could provide conditions
for a deadly bird flu pandemic.
- Saudi officials have spent 25 million riyals ($6.7m,
¤5.5m, £3.8m) stocking up on Tamiflu, the drug that can reduce
the severity of the disease if taken shortly after symptoms emerge. Regional
health officials said Saudi Arabia had also tightened screening of pilgrims
at ports and airports and ban-ned imported poultry in an attempt to minimise
health risks at the ritual gathering, which has proved a vector for past
- Hamad al-Manei, the health minister, said contingency
plans had been prepared in the event of an outbreak and the World Health
Organisation (WHO) was ready to provide support.
- So far the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza has
killed only people in sustained and direct contact with infected poultry.
But experts fear that in certain circumstances it could mutate into a form
transmittable from human to human.
- Victims of the disease have included three children from
Turkey, who died last week, providing the latest evidence of the disease's
progression from Asia to the fringes of Europe. In the past, however, stampede
rather than disease has proved a greater threat at the annual hajj, which
able-bodied Muslims are expected to carry out at least once in their lifetime.
- Security has also been an issue following a bombing in
1989 and clashes between Iranian Shia pilgrims and Saudi security forces
in 1987 in which 400 people died.
- Signs of sectarian and regional tensions emerged on Sunday
with Iraq's outgoing prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, accusing Saudi authorities
of barring thousands of Iraqis from the pilgrimage. The Saudi authorities
reacted angrily, with the pilgrimage ministry accusing Mr Jafaari's Shia-led
government of favouring Shia over Sunni Muslims in the allocation of places
on the hajj.
- The numbers of pilgrims arriving in Saudi Arabia this
year have been kept slightly lower because of security concerns. Prince
Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the interior minister, said a record 60,000 soldiers
had been deployed to police the pilgrimage.
- The Saudi authorities have also used at least 1.3bn riyals
from this year's record oil revenues to improve infrastructure for pilgrims.