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YYY: Swine Flu's Impact on 7 Billion Dollar Hajj Industry

Swine Flu's Impact on 7 Billion Dollar Hajj Industry

 IPS 04 June 2019

A swine flu advisory issued by the Saudi government, banning the entry of pilgrims under 12 and over 65 years, is a blow for Hajj pilgrims as Muslims the world over prepare for Ramadan. After the month of fasting – which started in Pakistan on Aug. 22 with the sighting of the new moon - millions of Muslims will converge on Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world that culminates in the festival of Eid al-Adha. (856 words) - By Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR - A swine flu advisory issued by the Saudi government, banning the entry of pilgrims under 12 and over 65 years, is a blow for Hajj pilgrims as Muslims the world over prepare for Ramadan.

After the month of fasting - which started in Pakistan on Aug. 22 with the sighting of the new moon - millions of Muslims will converge on Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world that culminates in the festival of Eid al-Adha.

"The decision by the Saudi government is against Islam. I had arranged money this year but the decision has shattered my dreams," says Gul Anar Khan, 70.

Kamran Zeb chairman of the Hajj Oranganisers Association in Pakistan told IPS that about 160,000 people were expecting to perform the pilgrimage this year. However, 40 percent of them were over the age of 70, and will not be able to make the journey to Islam's holiest shrine.

The week-long Hajj pilgrimage occurs in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Muslims believe every able-bodied believer must make the journey at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it.

"The first batch of pilgrims leaves for Saudi Arabia from Pakistan on Oct. 22, but there are no arrangements in sight to educate the people about the disease," says Zeb.

Arab health ministers decided to ban children below 12 and the elderly above 65 years, and those with chronic medical conditions from attending the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia this year in an effort to slow the spread of swine flu in a meeting held in Cairo on Jul. 22.

Since the confirmation of the first swine flu HIN1 patient, by the federal minister for health, Mir Aijaz Hussain Jakhrani, the Pakistan government has been under pressure to control the spread of the highly contagious virus.

"About 25 suspected patients were screened for swine flu and the situation was under control, as all preventive measures had been taken in this regard," Jakhrani told the National Assembly on Aug. 12.

"All precautionary measures have been adopted at airports and seaports to monitor the disease. Suspected travellers at the international airports, seaports and border posts were being screened," he added.

On Aug. 17, a hospital in Faisalabad, Punjab province, discharged a 14-year-old boy who was diagnosed with swine flu. The Pakistani boy had arrived from Saudi Arabia where his father is working on Aug. 3. His mother is quoted in the newspapers here saying she had returned with her son after performing the Umrah (a lesser pilgrimage of Mecca).

As of Aug. 13, the disease had infected 182,166 people in 78 countries, including 1,799 deaths since April this year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO had declared the fever a pandemic on Jun. 11.

"In the light of an advisory issued by the Saudi authorities we have asked that elderly over the age of 65 and children under 12 years, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases, serious cardiovascular diseases, asthma, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, uncontrolled diabetes should postpone their participation in Hajj and Umrah this year," Pakistan's director health, Dr Rasheed Juma, told IPS.

The ministry of health was also planning to install thermal scanners at Pakistan's airports to detect cases and procure swine flu vaccines whenever it became available, he said in an interview.

Immediately, the ministry was developing special health education material for Hajj pilgrims, along with training films, to be disseminated and displayed in the special camps for departing pilgrims.

"The medical mission accompanying the pilgrims this year will include highly qualified and trained public health specialists, epidemiologists, infection control and laboratory specialists," Juma said.

In the wake of a number of deaths and spread of H1N1 in countries close to Pakistan, like India, the ministry has prepared a comprehensive national plan. India reported 1,728 cases and 33 deaths on Aug. 19.

In the Gulf and the Middle East area, the H1N1 virus has so far seen fewer cases than other areas of the world affected by the pandemic. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two most affected countries: Riyadh has declared 232 cases and six deaths and Cairo has reported 117 cases and one death. The majority of infected cases have a history of travel to Mecca or Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The WHO's Pakistan chief, Dr Khalif Mahmoud Bile, told IPS over the telephone that though the pandemic was evolving and risk factors for serious disease were not known definitively, factors such as existing cardiovascular disease, asthma and other respiratory diseases, diabetes, cancer and pregnancy were considered as high risk.

An editorial in Pakistan's authoritative Dawn newspaper, Aug. 12, paints a bleak picture. "The WHO warns that the number of cases will rise significantly … The rising figures have caused fears that the gathering of pilgrims in Saudi Arabia for Hajj this year will become a flashpoint for the spread of the virus. After some Muslim countries proposed a suspension of the annual pilgrimage, an estimated 7 billion dollar industry, Arab health ministers decided to bar individuals younger than 12 and over 65, and those with chronic illnesses," it said.

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