I know in the UK, the health service is really struggling in dealing with all the new cases they have.
Amazing how this flu came from apparently nowhere......
Arab states agree on haj ban to fight flu
Health officials from the UAE and other Arab countries have agreed to ban vulnerable groups from undertaking haj and umrah this year because of fears over swine flu.
People below 12 or older than 65 and those with chronic illnesses will not be allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage, according to the decision made at an emergency meeting in Cairo, which ran into the early hours of yesterday morning.
The meeting, organised by the World Health Organisation’s regional office, involved representatives of the 22 Arab League states, but the agreement still has to be ratified by their governments.
“The UAE is part of the agreement, but we are waiting to be sent the official release so it can be approved,” said Dr Ali Shakar, the director general of the Ministry of Health. The UAE was represented at the meeting by the UAE ambassador to Egypt and Dr Issa al Mansouri, the general secretary of the Technical Health Committee on Combating Swine Flu, Dr Shakar said.The announcement comes as the high season for umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, nears and concern mounts about the potential spread of the H1N1 virus as Muslims from across the world gather in close proximity.
On Wednesday, swine flu was diagnosed in eight Kuwaiti nationals returning from umrah, and earlier in the week, Egypt confirmed that a woman had died after falling ill on pilgrimage, the first confirmed death from the disease in the Middle East.
Two Iranians returning from umrah have also tested positive for the H1N1 virus.
Umrah can be performed at any time of the year, but the peak time for the pilgrimage is during Ramadan, due to begin at the end of August.
Unlike haj, umrah is not compulsory for all able-bodied Muslims who have the means to make the pilgrimage, but it is recommended.
Mohammed al Mazroui, the head of the UAE Official Haj Mission, said his agency had not yet received guidance to change its travel advice for pilgrims but would do so if it received notice from the Ministry of Health.
“So far there is no change to our advice; anybody who wants to go on umrah and haj can,” Mr al Mazroui said.
After a meeting with WHO officials at the end of June, Saudi Arabia advised that groups considered high-risk – including the elderly, children, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases – should postpone haj and umrah this year. Oman has already banned vulnerable groups from performing umrah, while other states including Bahrain have urged the sick, pregnant and elderly not to attend.
The ministers stopped short of advising the cancellation of haj in November, when as many as three million pilgrims gather.
The ministers agreed that if a swine flu vaccine is ready before November, every pilgrim will have to provide an immunisation report to obtain a visa for the pilgrimage.
Researchers are rushing to develop a vaccine against the pandemic flu strain as the death toll rises. The number of deaths from swine flu has doubled over the past three weeks, from 330 to more than 700, according to the WHO.
Haj and umrah agents have said they are seeing a significant drop in the number of people booking pilgrimage this year, with some cancelling because of fears over swine flu. Speaking after the Cairo meeting, the Egyptian health minister Hatem al Gibali, said Egypt would consider a total ban on its citizens attending haj.
“The health ministry will take this decision if [swine flu] poses danger on Egypt, but we haven’t reached this level yet,” he told Egypt’s state news agency.
Egypt this month cancelled a street festival to honour Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter, who is widely considered the patron saint of Cairo and the Egyptian people.
The WHO said countries could consider postponing mass gatherings to prevent the spread of swine flu.
“Depending on the situation in each country at a particular time, countries could consider implementing measures to mitigate or slow down the spread of the pandemic,” said Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, a spokeswoman for the WHO. “One of the measures include postponement of mass or social gatherings.”
As of yesterday, 952 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 infection had been reported to the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has confirmed the most cases, with 232. The UAE has confirmed 79 cases.
The UAE Ministry of Health and General Authority of Islamic Affairs this month launched a campaign to raise awareness among those planning to travel to Mecca on how to protect themselves against the disease.
Saudi authorities have urged those planning to travel to Mecca to get a seasonal flu shot at least two weeks before travelling.
The UAE quota for haj pilgrims was cut to 6,228 this year, from 10,000 in 2008. The quota consists of 5,228 Emiratis and 1,000 expatriates.
Yahya Fouad, the executive manager of Al Etesam, a UAE-based haj and umrah tour operator, said that children and the elderly make up no more than five per cent of his company’s haj expeditions. These categories made up five to 10 per cent of umrah tours, since those are less crowded.
“The majority are youth and men,” he said.
On hearing about the decision to ban the elderly, children and pregnant women from performing haj, Mr Fouad said this was for the public good. “They are more aware of what’s good for the people. Their goal is to protect residents. It’s an issue of public good.
“Sure we might be affected as tour operators,” he said. “But it’s a bigger negative if we end up with additional cases [of swine flu].”
A spokesman for the Dubai-based haj and umrah tour operator Al Diyafa said his company had not received official word about a ban and that it would be up to individuals to decide whether to go on the pilgrimage. The firm would not place restrictions on those applying to join the tour, he said.
He acknowledged that there have been cancellations related to swine flu. “There are people who are afraid,” he said. “There have been cancellations.”
Dr Riad Abdelkarim, the chief medical officer at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, one of the largest medical facilities in the country, said combating the deadly H1N1 virus had become part of daily life.
“This is a reasonable and sensible precautionary measure,” he said of the decision by Arab health ministers late on Wednesday to forbid the young, old and sick from taking part in the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
“This is a reasonable and sensible precautionary measure,” said the doctor, who is planning to attend the religious ceremony late this year with his wife.
“It is not a reason for anybody to panic. There is already an increased risk of swine flu in a pandemic like this so this decision is certainly sensible.
“I would imagine there will still be cases of the H1N1 virus among the pilgrims but what this measure does is minimise the serious cases and potential fatalities.
“We have already been focusing our attention on children, elderly and people with chronic conditions so this makes a lot of sense.”http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090724/NATIONAL/707239828