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Swine Flu Fears Prompt Arab States to Limit Pilgrimage

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Swine flu fears have led health officials in Arab states to decree that the very young, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions may not attend this year's hajj, the pilgrimage devout Muslims can take to Saudi Arabia each year, the Associated Press reported.

In a meeting held Wednesday, the ministers decided against an outright cancellation of the annual hajj, which draws millions of Muslims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in late November. Instead, the ministers hope that by excluding those most vulnerable to infection they can minimize the impact of H1N1 infections that might arise with so many people coming into close contact at one time.

If an H1N1 vaccine becomes available before the start of the hajj, pilgrims will be required to provide proof of immunization before they receive a visa for the pilgrimage, the health ministers added.

Debate has raged throughout the Muslim world on the advisability of cancelling this year's hajj due to the swine flu outbreak. According to the World Health Organization, there are 952 reported cases of swine flu in the eastern Mediterranean region, which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan. One Egyptian woman has died from swine flu after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, the AP reported.

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