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
"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
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
[to top of second column]
"Ebola this year presents an added challenge for us, but we have the
full support of the government and face no financial restrictions,"
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
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)
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