The Saudi health minister said Saturday that the kingdom will not bar anyone considered high-risk for swine flu from performing the hajj pilgrimage this year, though he urged countries where pilgrims set out from to take precautions.
The hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, has become a concern for world health officials because the density of pilgrims _ with shoulder-to-shoulder contact as they pray _ has raised fears of a massive spread of swine flu.
The pilgrimage attracts about 3 million people from 160 countries annually and begins this year on Nov. 25, as the winter flu season approaches in the Northern Hemisphere.
The H1N1 flu has killed 66 people in Saudi Arabia, and the government invited international experts, including from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, in June to a conference to examine Saudi measures to prevent the spread of the disease during the Muslim pilgrimage.
The conference recommended that the elderly, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases and children skip hajj this year.
Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah said it is the responsibility of individual countries to enforce those recommendations.
"Saudi Arabia does not ban anyone because hajj is a religious event," al-Rabeeah told reporters. "Saudi Arabia has put in place strong recommendations that we hope individual countries will abide by."
The conference also urged the kingdom to maintain adequate screening for the virus at entry points and recommended that pilgrims receive flu shots at least two weeks before they travel to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the swine flu vaccine once it is available.
Some countries in the region, including Iraq and Syria, are making hajj pilgrims the top priority for H1N1 vaccines. Syria is also applying restrictions barring the elderly and those under 18 from making the journey.
Other nations, like Jordan and Lebanon, have not put any restrictions in place and have so far not provided vaccinations.
Libya, which chooses its pilgrims by lottery, is seeking to limit the numbers this year, allowing those chosen to postpone their trips until next year and almost doubling the fees pilgrims need to pay.
Al-Rabeeah spoke at the launch of a nationwide swine flu vaccine campaign in Saudi Arabia. The minister, who is also a surgeon, rolled up his sleeve and took the first shot. He then administered the vaccine to one of his twin daughters, Hana, 8. Her sister, Haifa, did not get the vaccine because she contracted swine flu recently.
Al-Rabeeah said a million doses of the vaccine will cover the first stage of the campaign. Pilgrims residing in Saudi Arabia, health workers and other officials involved in hajj, especially in Mecca and Medina, top the vaccination priority list.
Al-Rabeeah said only two cases of swine flu have been reported so far among the half a million pilgrims who have already arrived in the kingdom.
Asked whether fewer pilgrims are expected to attend because of swine flu concerns, al-Rabeeah said, "There are indications there will be an increase."
Al-Rabeeah said CDC experts are already at health centers in Mecca to assess the need for the free anti-viral medication stockpiled for the gathering.
Other preparations include thermal screening equipment at entry points to detect passengers with fevers, rapid reporting of illnesses from a network of hospitals and clinics back to the emergency operations center and special hospitals for quarantining those who catch the disease.
Associated Press Writer Omar Sinan contributed to this report from Cairo.