MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia sought to assure the public that the kingdom was Ebola-free as an estimated 2 million Muslims streamed into a sprawling tent city near Mecca on Thursday for the start of the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage.
Ebola is believed to have sickened more than 7,100 people in West Africa and killed more than 3,300, according to the World Health Organization.
Earlier this year, Saudi authorities banned people from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea — the countries hardest hit in the epidemic — from getting visas as a precaution against the Ebola virus. The decision has affected a total of 7,400 pilgrims from the three countries.
The kingdom has not discovered a single case of Ebola so far and is taking all measures to ensure the safety and health of the pilgrims, said Manal Mansour, the head of Saudi Health Ministry's department for prevention of infectious diseases,
"The most important precaution that (the kingdom) has taken was to restrict visas from the affected areas," she told The Associated Press.
Upon arrival to the kingdom, pilgrims were asked to fill out "medical screening cards with data" and asked about their travels in the past 21 days, Mansour added.
There were other health concerns related to the hajj earlier this year. The kingdom had to improve its anti-infection measures after it was hit by an upswing in the number of people who had contracted a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in the spring. There have been more than 750 cases of MERS in the kingdom since 2012, of which 319 people died, including several health workers.
The hajj sees massive crowds every year from around the world gather in and around Mecca for about five days as part of a spiritual journey meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and bring them closer to God. All male pilgrims dress in simple, white robes as a sign of equality before God.
The pilgrimage is a central pillar of Islam and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform it once in their lives.
Saudi authorities said there are 1.4 million international visitors for the hajj this year. Some 600,000 pilgrims from the kingdom itself are also expected to take part.
On Thursday, pilgrims headed to Mina, about five kilometers (three miles) from Mecca, where they will spend the night in prayer and supplication.
Some pilgrims wore surgical blue masks to be extra careful.
"I'm afraid of the normal flu, I'm not scared of Ebola or anything like that," said Nayef Aboulein, a Saudi pilgrim.
Another pilgrim, Zaid Ajaz Amanea from the United Kingdom, said he felt safe in Saudi Arabia.
"I don't have to fear anything from anybody because I'm coming to God's house," he said.