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Immunizations required for pilgrims to stop polio

Associated Press
Published August 21, 2005

CAIRO - As millions of Muslims prepare to make the annual hajj to Mecca in January, Saudi Arabia is adopting stricter measures to stop a startling spread of polio across the region, Saudi and U.N. officials said Saturday.

The country that hosts the annual Islamic pilgrimage will now immunize - on the spot - all children aged 15 or under who travel to Mecca from 19 countries where the virus is found, mostly from Africa.

A top Saudi health official said Ethiopia, Eritrea and Angola were added this month to the list of "at risk" countries as the government cranked up preparations for the influx of more than 2-million pilgrims through air, sea and land ports.

"The hajj period is important because of the large number of movements of people from around the world into one location," said Bruce Aylward, coordinator of the Global Polio Eradication Program for the World Health Organization.

"But this year it is especially important because a lot of the people traveling to Saudi come from polio-infected countries."

Tens of thousands of visitors to Saudi holy shrines are from African countries with large Muslim populations, including Nigeria, where a major polio outbreak two years ago spread the crippling virus throughout Africa and the Middle East.

The infected countries include neighboring Chad, nearby Sudan and Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where polio had been eradicated.

This year will be the first when all pilgrims 15 and under must prove they have been vaccinated against polio to receive a Saudi entry visa. What's more, Saudi health officials said, each person 15 and under from the 19 countries where the virus is found will be required to take an oral vaccine upon entering the country.

Aylward said more than 1,050 children have been reported paralyzed by polio this year, mostly in the Nigerian outbreak after Islamic clerics called for a boycott of the polio vaccine.

Saudi Arabia - which attracts not only pilgrims but millions of workers from African nations, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia - saw a limited outbreak of the disease, with three cases reported this year.

But its highly developed health facilities and vigilance in immunizing its citizens prevented the outbreak from spreading.

The same cannot be said for its impoverished neighbor, Yemen, where at least 415 children have been paralyzed and at least 10,000 infected this year.

[Last modified August 21, 2005, 00:51:14]

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