Mecca Alert For Bird Flu
Threat To Hajj Pilgrims

By William Wallis in Cairo

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 flu epidemics.
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.



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