Saudi Arabia to restrict pilgrim visas over virus fears: France

PARIS (AFP) - Saudi Arabia will not issue visas to the elderly, pregnant women or children for the haj and umrah pilgrimages to help combat the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) coronavirus, the French Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

In an urgent circular to doctors, it said the Saudi Health Ministry "has taken the decision to restrict the issuing of visas" for the annual haj and for the umrah, a pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time.

"Elderly persons (for whom no precise age threshold has been specified), pregnant women, children and people affected by chronic diseases, notably people with cardiac, diabetic or respiratory disease, kidney or immune-system deficiencies, will be unable to obtain a visa this year," the circular said.

The circular was issued by the General Health Directorate (DGS), which administers the Health Ministry.

In a statement posted on its website on Saturday, the Saudi Health Ministry urged people in these categories not to perform the haj.

But the statement was unclear as to whether the authorities would not issue these people with a visa.

Mers has caused 45 deaths, 38 of them in Saudi Arabia, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which convened emergency talks on the virus last week.

The WHO has not recommended any Mers-related travel restrictions, but says countries should monitor unusual respiratory infection patterns.

A cousin of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in the coronavirus family, Mers infects lungs, causing fever, coughing and breathing difficulties, and can also cause kidney failure.

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