Saudi Arabia reports flu death as pilgrimage nears

Mon Jul 27, 2009 4:34am EDT

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RIYADH, July 27 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, which is gearing up to host hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims later this year, announced its first death from H1N1 flu on Monday.

The ministry of health said a 30-year-old man died on Saturday from the virus after being admitted to a private medical centre in the eastern city of Dammam.

Saudi Arabia has reported about 300 cases of the new H1N1 flu, raising fears the pandemic could hit the pilgrimage seasons in September and November.

Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah has urged elderly, ill and other unfit Muslims to postpone pilgrimages as the kingdom tries to prevent a large-scale spread of the H1N1 flu.

Arab health ministers also agreed earlier this month to restrict people over the age of 65 and below 12 and the chronically sick from performing this year's haj pilgrimage due to fears over the virus. [ID:nLM604922]

Mecca, home to Islam's holiest site, traditionally attracts more than a million pilgrims for a minor pilgrimage during the last third of the fasting month of Ramadan, a lunar month which starts around Aug. 20 this year.

The main pilgrimage season falls late in November this year. Last year, about three million people performed the pilgrimage, which also extends to the city of Medina as worshipers visit the grave of the Prophet Mohammad.

Last week, the health ministry said it would no longer publish updates on the number of infections after they neared 300 without explaining the move which came one day after Egypt reported its first H1N1 death of a woman returning from Mecca.

Last month, Tunisia announced the suspension of travel by its pilgrims to Mecca.

The new virus has killed more than 800 people worldwide since it emerged in April, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The body has declared H1N1, popularly known as swine flu, as the fastest-moving pandemic ever. (Reporting by Souhail Karam; Editing by Matthew Jones)



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