Saudi health officials announced the first deaths from swine flu of this year's annual pilgrimage to Mecca, as four pilgrims succumbed to the disease soon after arriving in Saudi Arabia.
The Health Ministry said none of the victims had been vaccinated and all became sick within two to three days of arriving. Three of the victims were 75 years old, coming from Sudan, India and Morocco, and the fourth was a 17-year-old Nigerian.
The hajj, as the pilgrimage is known, is required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime. It attracts about 3 million people from 160 countries and begins this year on Nov. 26, as the winter flu season approaches in the Northern Hemisphere.
The pilgrimage has also become a concern for world health officials because the massive numbers of people brought together from around the world has raised fears it could contribute to the spread of swine flu.
The H1N1 flu has killed 66 people in Saudi Arabia, and the government invited international experts, including some 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.
The Saudi government has recommended the elderly, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases and children skip the hajj this year.
Other measures 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.