CAIRO (AP) – Egyptians who perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca risk being quarantined upon their return to ensure the country remains free of swine flu, the health minister warned.
Hatem el-Gabali said the sheer volume of people participating in the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia makes it a possibility that swine flu cases will be transmitted. The hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, draws about 3 million people yearly. It is expected to be held around the beginning of December.
"It is a big possibility" that swine flu will spread in the pilgrimage season, el-Gabali said in an interview published yesterday in the independent al-Masry al-Youm daily. He said thousands of Egyptians returned home with influenza after performing religious duties in Saudi Arabia last year.
More than half a million Egyptians perform the hajj every year.
"What would we do if a thousand people returned with swine flu this year?" el-Gabali asked.
The quarantine option is on the table, but no decision has been taken, he said.
The minister said he cannot bar Egyptians from traveling to perform the pilgrimage, but he stressed that he can set up other measures to ensure pilgrims do not infect others in the country of 80 million upon their return.
"It is my job to warn," el-Gabali said. "I can also open the quarantine and say no one will return to their homes after arriving from Saudi Arabia."
The suggestion highlights Egypt's concern that swine flu will hit the country which, with 27 recorded bird flu deaths, is behind only Indonesia and Vietnam in the number of fatalities from that illness since 2003. That disease has persisted despite efforts to educate people and control the poultry population.
Faced with the bird flu fight and the government's often criticized response to disasters, Egyptian authorities have been eager to show they are being proactive.
El-Gabali has made near daily media comments and appearances, saying officials are prepared for all possibilities, including distributing face masks, closing schools, using security forces and the military to cordon off entire areas and even digging mass graves, in case of a severe outbreak.
Egyptian authorities also ordered that the country's roughly 300,000 pigs be killed as a preventive measure and have finished off about a third of the job in a couple of weeks. The move, however, has elicited widespread criticism from international animal rights groups and was described as unnecessary by the World Health Organization.
The health minister's concern over the hajj has drawn mixed reaction from top clerics in the Muslim world. Some have said they would support the call if the World Health Organization declares an endemic outbreak. Others, however, maintain it would represent a dereliction of Islamic duties unless Saudi Arabia announces it.
Saudi Arabia Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheikh, whose country accrues billions of dollars yearly from the pilgrimage, says the warning about swine flu exposure at the hajj is "exaggerated," and was quoted last week by Saudi's al-Riyadh daily as saying that pharmaceutical companies were causing the panic "to promote their products through rumors."