Amid fears of bird flu pandemic, WHO expert assert that Haj should be called off in case a human-to-human contamination of the virus is discovered.
According to Didier Pittet, director of the Infection Control Programme at Geneva's University Hospitals, millions of pilgrims who gather in Mecca for Haj risk creating the conditions in which a pandemic strain of flu could emerge.
Avian flu has affected the Southeast Asian nations although it is largely limited to poultry and wild-bird populations.
Experts fear that the deadly H5N1 virus, which has killed 67 people in five countries in Asia over the past two years, is on the verge of undergoing mutation, thus making it easier to spread from birds to humans.
In the event of this happening the impact worldwide would be tremendous, experts say. The risk of mutation would be increased if anyone with bird flu came to Mecca and mingled with people with seasonal flu among the huge crowds.
While appreciating the Saudi authorities for their efforts and prevention measures, Pittet, who leads a campaign by the WHO to prevent infection among patients, fears that if by bad luck, bird flu and common flu viruses come in contact, the situation would be terrible.
Meanwhile, shunning doubts over a pandemic, Health Minister Dr. Hamad Al-Manie asserted that Saudi Arabia is free from bird flu, and no bird flu cases have been reported in the Kingdom so far.
Dr. Sahl Al-Sabban of the Haj Ministry said his ministry had taken measures to protect pilgrims and prevent any bird flu outbreak during the Haj season. He added that the ministry would closely monitor pilgrims on arrival and take any suspected cases of bird flu infection to hospitals.
Around 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims from over 160 countries head for Mecca each year in one of the world's biggest religious rituals. The next Haj is expected to start in January.
Throughout Saudi history, cities like Mecca, Medina and Jeddah have been worst hit by deadly diseases like plague, cholera and meningitis during Haj.