CAIRO, July 22 (Reuters) - Arab health ministers on Wednesday agreed to restrict the elderly, children under 12 and the chronically sick from performing this year’s haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia due to fears over the H1N1 flu virus.
The total number of pilgrims at the haj and the lesser umra pilgrimage will not be restricted by the kingdom, the Saudi health minister said, though numbers are expected to be lower.
"We will not change the percentage of any country. We changed certain rules," Abdullah al-Rabeeah said after a meeting of Arab health ministers and representatives of the World Health Organisation.
WHO spokesman Ibrahim al-Kerdani said the decision must be ratified by the health ministers’ governments, including the government of Saudi Arabia, though WHO regional director Hussein Gezairi said it was likely to be agreed.
"Some groups will be excluded from haj: people over the age of 65, people under the age of 12 and people with chronic illnesses," Kerdani said.
Saudi Arabia in June called on elderly, ill and other unfit Muslims to postpone pilgrimages to Mecca.
Around 3 million Muslim pilgrims from over 160 countries head for the holy city of Mecca in western Saudi Arabia each year in one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings.
The haj will this year take place in November, while the umra can be performed at any time but is popular during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts in August.
Asked if there would be less worshippers at this year’s haj due to the restrictions, al-Rabeeah said: "Probably".
WHO’s Gezairi said Saudi Arabia was well equipped to deal with communicable diseases among the large number of annual pilgrims.
"The Saudi government has a very long experience now ... because Saudi Arabia every year receives between 25 and 30 cases of cholera and no epidemics are happening."
Egypt, which has struggled to contain the more deadly H5N1 bird flu virus and on Sunday reported its first H1N1 death in a woman returning from umra, said it would ensure no Egyptian pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia while carrying the bird flu virus, which experts say could theoretically mix with H1N1 to create yet another flu strain.
"We are separating patients who are positive for avian flu in hospitals," said Hatem el-Gabali, health minister in the most populous Arab country.
"But if you have avian flu and you have been treated successfully you can go and do the haj and umrah, there is no danger at all because we never discharge anybody from any hospital until we are sure that they do not have the virus."
The airborne H1N1 virus has now been diagnosed in tens of thousands of people worldwide, and has killed more than 430 people, according to the WHO. (Reporting by Alastair Sharp)