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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Saudi Arabia threatens ban on Nigerian Hajj pilgrims

Deadly Lassa fever has Saudi officials fearful of potential Hajj outbreak 

<p>Muslim worshippers are silhouetted against the sunrise during the Hajj pilgrimage on&nbsp;Mount Arafat, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Mast Irham / EPA</p>
<p>Muslim worshippers are silhouetted against the sunrise during the Hajj pilgrimage on&nbsp;Mount Arafat, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Mast Irham / EPA</p>

Nigeria is scrambling to pacify its Muslim population following reports that Saudi Arabia may ban its pilgrims from this year’s Hajj due to the re-emergence of a deadly virus, Lassa fever.

The West African country’s Hajj commission held emergency meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday with federal officials and representatives from all 36 states.

The annual pilgrimage to Makkah last year attracted two million Muslims from across the world. With 95,000 allocated places for the August pilgrimage, Nigerians would be one of its largest contingents.

After rumours sparked panic on social media, National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) spokesman Mousa Ubandawaki confirmed to Premium Times that Saudi authorities had threatened the ban.

The organisation later tried to allay fears, tweeting that “no such decision has been taken”.

But on Tuesday night, NAHCON’s executive chairman, Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, said Nigerian authorities were taking precautionary measures to support the Saudi Ministry of Health in ensuring the Hajj is free of Lassa fever.

“Our pilgrims will not be subjected to unnecessary scrutiny. If we do what is supposed to be done back home, I’m sure the Saudis will be very comfortable to welcome Nigerian pilgrims,” he told reporters. “Saudi are a very accommodating and very hospitable people.”

The virus, for which there is no vaccine, is transmitted through rat droppings and urine. It can spread between people, particularly in hospitals and environments with poor sanitation. Among other symptoms, it causes agonising facial swelling.

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The World Health Organisation has recorded 1,081 suspected cases of Lassa fever in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation, with 90 deaths across 18 states, including the capital, Lagos. Fourteen healthcare workers have also contracted the disease.

Nevertheless, Nigeria’s health minister Isaac Adewole yesterday claimed the country will soon rid itself of Lassa.

Similar cases have been recorded in surrounding countries, including Sierra Leone, Mali and Liberia.

Given the scale of the Hajj, pilgrims must traditionally adhere to strict vaccination guidelines.

In 2009, Saudi authorities decided to ban the young, old and those with chronic medical conditions amid swine flu fears. Four years ago, as Ebola rapidly spread across parts of West Africa, it was pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia who were barred.

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