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Saudis scramble to stop Hajj swine flu crisis

  • Story Highlights
  • Saudi Arabia investigates country's first death due to swine flu
  • Country has diagnosed more than 230 cases of the H1N1 virus this year
  • Officials bracing for millions of visitors as annual Hajj pilgrimage gets underway
By Mohammed Jamjoom
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(CNN) -- Saudi Arabia has launched an investigation into its first fatality from the H1N1 Virus as it tries to head off a swine flu epidemic before millions descend for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, health officials said.

The patient -- a 30-year-old man who lived in the country's Eastern Province -- was admitted to a hospital in the city of Dammam last week. He died Saturday.

The man had never traveled outside the country and had no communicable diseases, said Saudi Ministry of Health spokesman Khalid Al-Marghalani.

"There were odd circumstances about him contracting the disease. We want to find out more information about his case," Al-Marghalani added.

A committee had been formed to determine how the patient was treated and the "direct reason leading to his death," according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency, citing the health ministry.

Saudi Arabia has diagnosed more than 230 cases of the H1N1 virus this year and is bracing for more.

The country has enacted a national plan to combat a pandemic, and the plan "states clearly the steps to be followed to trace any suspect or disease contractor," according to the health ministry.

In the past few weeks, a debate about the virus has erupted in the Middle East. Of particular concern is how to keep it from spreading among the millions of visitors expected in Saudi Arabia during this year's Hajj -- a pilgrimage required of Muslims at least once in their lives.

Last week, Arab health ministers held an emergency summit in Cairo, Egypt, to discuss the issue. Guidelines were issued, banning various groups from participating in this year's Hajj -- children under 12, adults over 65 and people with chronic diseases. Saudi Arabia recommended that pregnant women stay home as well.

At the close of the meeting, Saudi Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah told CNN that, in all, Saudi Arabia had issued 15 recommendations to help ensure the safety and health of pilgrims participating in the Hajj.

"The most important of those is, first of all, that they should take the seasonal flu vaccine two weeks prior to Hajj," Al-Rabeeah said.

Even with the guidelines in place, World Health Organization spokesman Dr. Ebrahim el Khordany acknowledged that it won't be easy keeping potential pilgrims away.

El Khordany told CNN, "It was discussed in detail how it's going to be worked out between the country and Saudi Arabia to find out the best way to do it and, of course, to make sure that people don't try to use their connections to get their visas or to get to go to Saudi, because people are really very keen to go to the pilgrimage."

The Saudi government has also said it will set up quarantine centers at airports as a prevention measure.

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