Arab health ministers, meeting in Cairo, have agreed to impose restrictions on this year's Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in a bid to control the spread of the H1N1 swine flu virus.  The ministers are forbidding those under age 12 and over age 65 from participating.

Growing fears of a flu epidemic across the Arab world is prompting Arab health ministers to restrict participation in this year's annual Hajj.

After an urgent meeting in Cairo, more than a dozen Arab health ministers agreed to prevent young and elderly Hajj candidates, as well as those with health problems, from traveling to Saudi Arabia for the annual event.

Saudi Arabia, which hosts the Hajj and grants visas to participants, first recommended restricting participation last month.  The kingdom has had a number of H1N1 flu cases, and fears of a health crisis during the Hajj were behind the move.

Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah urged the Arab press to inform the public about the decision to limit Hajj participation and noted that his country was increasing the number of flu shots on hand to control an eventual outbreak.

The Saudi Kingdom, he argues, is working to protect the health of pilgrims.

He says the recommendations on restricting Hajj participants have been approved and will be put into action, and hopefully, they will guarantee the safety of all those who want to perform their pilgrimage.

The Eastern Mediterranean regional director of the World Health Organization, Hussein Gezairi pointed out the recommendations of the health ministers would be enforced and that no visas would be granted unless Hajj candidates met all requirements.

He says organizational procedures were devised based on the categories that have been determined by the Saudi health minister.  Centers to approve visa candidates will be set up, registered, and equipped under the Health Ministry to prevent anyone from obtaining visa documents that are not correctly approved.

Yemeni Health Minister Abdul Karim Rasae, who chaired the conference, said the decision to prevent vulnerable people from attending this year's Hajj was debated long and hard before being approved.

He says all the ministers profited from their discussions and the decisions that were arrived at stemmed from their debate and had not been cooked up in advance.

The Saudi government has the power to grant or deny visas according to its own discretion, and the Saudis indicated last month that participation in this year's Hajj should be restricted.