HAJ IN THE TIME OF SWINE FLU. Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Makkah to mark the zenith of the annual Haj. AP file photoFilipino Muslims who want to take part in the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia will have to take flu shots at least two weeks before departure.
Saudi-based Arab News reported Thursday that this is one of the conditions sought by the Saudi government to minimize the risk of visitors getting A(H1N1) during the pilgrimage.
For this year, Ramadan is expected to start in the second half of August and will continue for 30 days.
"These conditions have been approved after consultations with top international experts in the field. No one will be able to get a visa without fulfilling these new rules," Saudi Health Minister Abdullah Al-Rabeeah said, adding that the conditions are "balanced, fair and scientific."
Al-Rabeeah said the Saudi government will also restrict Haj pilgrims to those between the ages of 12 and 65 - a condition pending formal approval by the Saudi Cabinet.
He also said pilgrims taking part in the circumambulation or the movement around the Kaaba, stoning of the devil at Jamrat, and the standing at Arafat would be required to wear face masks to reduce the risk of flu.
Pilgrims must also be vaccinated two weeks prior to their departure for the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Madinah (Medina), he said.
Al-Rabeeah urged pilgrims to wear masks in crowded places, to sanitize their hands and to seek medical help if they have flu symptoms.
These measures to prevent the spread of the infectious disease are part of a comprehensive plan for Haj operations, he said.
On the other hand, he said the millions of pilgrims expected to flock to the Kingdom will be required to provide health certificates showing that they do not have chronic diseases.
Khaled Al-Mirghalani, the Health Ministry’s spokesman, said pilgrims will likewise be required to show proof they have received flu shots at home.
But Al-Rabeeah said the new measures would not affect countries’ Haj quotas.
He said the proposal was based on decisions taken at a meeting in Jeddah of swine flu experts and at an emergency meeting of Arab health ministers in Cairo last month.
To date, more than 600 people in the Kingdom have been affected with A(H1N1), with six deaths caused by the infection. The first recorded case of A(H1N1) in the oil-rich kingdom was a Filipina nurse, who contracted the mutant virus after returning from the Philippines. [See: Pinay nurse is first case of A(H1N1) in KSA]
Other than the age restrictions, Haj visas will not be given to pregnant women or to those who are chronically ill with heart, kidney, liver, lung, diabetes, obesity and hypertension problems.
Al-Rabeeah said overseas Saudi missions would instruct Haj operators to inform pilgrims of the current requirements and advise them to follow the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health.
Meanwhile, he said the Kingdom had adequate medicines and facilities to cope with any emergency during the Haj.
In addition to local preparations, the ministry has ordered four million vaccines expected to arrive in October.
Riyadh Al-Kheneini, deputy chief of mission at the Saudi Embassy in Colombo, said the Saudi Foreign Ministry had not yet made any changes in the rules concerning the issuance of Umrah visas.
“We are still waiting for the new regulations for Haj," he added.
Last year, about 4,000 Filipino-Muslims participated in the annual pilgrimage to Makkah. The Haj is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world and is the fifth pillar of Islam, an obligation that must be carried out at least once in an Islam devotee's lifetime if he or she can afford it and is able to do so.
In 2007, among the prominent Filipino pilgrims were former Batangas Gov. Antonio Leviste and her more famous equestrienne daughter Toni; Reps. Mujib Hataman of the Anak Mindanao party-list group and Yusuf H. Jikiri of the 1st district of Sulu; Govs. Andal Ampatuan of Maguindanao, Sakur Tan of Sulu, and Sadikul A. Sahali of Tawi-Tawi. - GMANews.TV