By Amena Bakr
MECCA (Reuters) - Anxious to safeguard Islam's haj pilgrimage from the threat of Ebola, Saudi authorities are screening pilgrims arriving from West Africa and have deployed mobile laboratories to test any suspected cases quickly.
The kingdom expects nearly 3 million pilgrims in Mecca this year, including 1.4 million from abroad. The health ministry said on Thursday it has been working with the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to contain the threat of Ebola, which has killed 3,300 people in West Africa this year.
"We came from Lagos and went through screening there and again have been tested here in Saudi, so for sure we don't have anything," said Abdelsamad Shoudany, a Nigerian doctor standing outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Inside, huge numbers of people were performing the first of the haj rites, walking around the Kaaba, the black-clad cube toward which the world's 1.6 billion Muslims face to pray, and which they see as the geographic center of their faith.
Few of the pilgrims, who dress in simple white toweling robes, were wearing face masks or surgical gloves to protect them against the transmission of Ebola or other diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
"I've waited all my life to come here and honestly I wish to die here, so getting a virus is the last of my fears. As you see, I'm already in a wheelchair," said Ismail Saleh, a 71-year-old pilgrim from Egypt.
Those who have taken such precautions are following the advice of the Saudi Health Ministry, which initially struggled to prevent an outbreak of MERS in April and May that infected hundreds due to poor hygiene procedures in some hospitals.
Saudi Arabia, where the disease emerged in 2012, has had 755 cases, of whom 320 have died. Four new cases have been confirmed in the past week, including two in Medina and Taif where haj pilgrims often travel, the authorities have announced.
"I can't afford to get MERS or Ebola or any virus. I have my family to take care of," said Rubina Fahim, a Pakistani mother of three.
SECURING THE PILGRIMAGE
Saudi Arabia earlier this year barred pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the three countries worst hit by Ebola, from applying for haj visas. More than 7,000 Muslims in those countries had applied, said the United Nations.
"All pilgrims arriving through the 15 entry points had to fill in an application to tell us where they have been over the past 21 days, since that's the incubation period for Ebola," said Saudi Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Mirghalani.
"We had no suspected cases of Ebola or MERS among the pilgrims so far," he added.
In case of an outbreak of any infectious disease, the authorities have almost doubled the number of health personnel at the haj medical centers to 22,000 from around 12,000 last year, Tariq Ahmed Madani, a special MERS consultant to the Health Ministry, told Reuters.
"Ebola this year presents an added challenge for us, but we have the full support of the government and face no financial restrictions," said Madani.
He added that the kingdom had recently established a Command and Control Center (CCC) to deal with any outbreak or natural disaster that might occur.
"The center's opening was timely with haj, but is something that will continue to operate outside the haj period for any incidents Saudi faces."
The kingdom has this year reduced the numbers permitted to perform haj for safety reasons because of construction work to enlarge the Grand Mosque. Its security services have ringed Islam's sacred city with checkpoints and other measures to prevent people arriving for the pilgrimage without authorization.
Those procedures, aimed at reducing crowd pressure which can lead to stampedes, fires and other hazards, have been intensified in recent years because of the growing security threat from the many political crises in the Middle East.
Larger numbers of special forces officers were patrolling the Grand Mosque than in previous years.
Last week, Saudi Arabia took part in U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State and other militants in Syria, and that group and al Qaeda have both called for attacks inside the kingdom.
"The kingdom has been prepared to defend its kind and its people from terrorism for a long time. We have enforced our security readiness at all the borders of Saudi Arabia," said Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki.
(Additional reporting By Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Angus McDowall and Mark Trevelyan)