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The Hajj: keeping pilgrims safe

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(CNN) -- More than two million Muslims are converging on the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia for The Hajj, Islam's annual pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad.

The ritual has in the past been plagued by fires, stampedes and occasional riots.

A stampede in 1990 killed more than 1,400 people. In 1997 high winds swept fire through a sprawling tent city killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500.

During the last Hajj in January 2006 more than 360 pilgrims were crushed to death and hundreds injured during the stone throwing ritual.

This year three people have already died and 34 others injured when a coach carrying Hajj pilgrims from Medina to Mecca crashed in an accident.

However the Saudi Arabian authorities say they have put into place a wide range of measures aimed at averting any large scale tragedy.

And say they are prepared to handle any outbreak of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.

The Hajj has been marred by political protests in the past. And just last month the Saudis detained over 136 foreign and Saudi militants, some of whom were posing as pilgrims, who they say were planning a series of suicide bombings.

Among the measures designed to combat overcrowding is the new Al Jamarat Bridge, where the stampede took place. It has been doubled in width and additional wide ramps added to try make it easier for crowds to flow freely.

Pilgrims are also being urged to carry out the stoning ritual in organized groups, not carry luggage through the crowds and if elderly or infirm, to send a proxy on their behalf.

The majority of pilgrims attending The Hajj live in a huge tented village erected outside Mecca. In the past cooking fires have raged out of control. This year the number of fireproof tents has been increased.

The Civil Defense Department is deploying more than 12,000 officers in different parts of Mecca, Mina and other holy sites. Helicopters will patrol the skies to monitor the movement of pilgrims.

To cope with medical problems, more outdoor clinics have been set up, hospital equipment updated and the number of beds increased. Officials say that more than 2,000 beds including 500 near the holy locations, 72 clinics and a fleet of 100 ambulances are available around the clock.

In an effort to tackle disease, Saudi authorities have made it compulsory for pilgrims to arrive in the Kingdom with valid Meningococcal Meningitis vaccination certificates. Pilgrims must have polio immunization certificates if they come from countries where the disease is prevalent, such as Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has also suggested that the Saudi authorities should consider making influenza vaccination mandatory for the Hajj to help avert the risk of a global flu pandemic.

In a report the BMJ says one in three pilgrims are affected by respiratory problems during their stay. "Such overcrowding and continuous close contact greatly increases the spread of respiratory infections," it says.

Over 300 pilgrims died in 2005 during the stoning ritual.


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