Saudi Arabia said Monday it is to vaccinate all its residents attending the hajj against swine flu, pressing ahead with plans to host millions of the world's Muslims despite a heightened pandemic alert.
The kingdom has received the first tranche of 11 million vaccine doses it has ordered for the A(H1N1) flu.
Authorities were to begin vaccinating hundreds of thousands of health and other hajj workers as well as domestic pilgrims against swine flu from next week, said a senior Saudi health official.
Anyone working on the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina was being strongly urged to get vaccinated, said Dr Ziad Memish, the assistant deputy health minister for preventive medicine.
"The priority is for local pilgrims," he told AFP, referring to the estimated one-million plus Saudis and residents of the country who will embark on the hajj.
The vaccines will also be made available - but not mandatory - for health workers, hundreds of thousands of government and private sector workers dealing with the hajj, and residents of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, he said.
The hajj, which peaks this year during November 25-29, swells the region in western Saudi Arabia with about three million pilgrims from around 80 countries, including more than one million from inside the country.
Swine flu deaths have reached 62 in the kingdom, most of them involving people with other health problems, Memish said.
Confirmed cases are close to 7,000 since the first case was reported on June 3, while clinically diagnosed cases, which Memish said are more indicative of the presence of the disease, are between 22,000 and 23,000 cases.
Despite concerns about the disease the hajj will go ahead without any forced restrictions on pilgrims, tens of thousands of whom have already arrived in the country for the event.
Memish said the low level of cases during the peak umrah minor pilgrimage period in August and September, only 26 proven swine flu infections among millions of pilgrims, gave them confidence that the hajj will not experience a major outbreak.
"We don't envision anything disastrous," he said.
Dr. Shahul Ebrahim, an epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is assisting the Saudi health ministry during the hajj, said that close monitoring of pilgrims and the widespread use of face masks and hand cleaners should be able to stall the disease's spread.
"These are the only things feasible that we can do," he told AFP.
"I don't see anything that the Saudi government is not doing that should be done," he said.
The governments of several countries sending pilgrims on the hajj, including China and Egypt which has tens of thousands heading there each year, have given vaccinations to citizens making the journey.