Sunday, November 29, 2009

stoning the devil brings outbreak fears

WaPo | Millions of Muslim pilgrims, some wearing surgical masks, jostled one another Saturday to furiously cast pebbles at stone walls representing the devil -- the hajj ritual of highest concern to world health authorities watching for an outbreak of swine flu.

The Islamic pilgrimage draws 3 million visitors each year, making it the largest annual gathering of people in the world and an ideal incubator for the H1N1 flu virus.

So far, about 60 flu cases have been uncovered, but health officials warn that the true impact will be known only after the faithful have returned to their home countries around the world.

Saudi officials, along with U.S. and international health experts, have geared up to try to limit any outbreak here. But they are also using the pilgrimage as a test case to build a database, watch for mutations and look for lessons on controlling the flu at other large gatherings, such as the 2010 soccer World Cup to be held in South Africa.

The stoning-of-the-devil ritual, performed Friday, Saturday and Sunday, is when the crowds of pilgrims at the five-day hajj are at their peak and contact among them is closest.

Under a hot sun Saturday, hundreds of thousands of sweaty bodies pressed against one another near the stoning walls. The majority did not wear masks, and many sneezed, coughed and spat and looked visibly exhausted.

Other parts of the hajj -- such as the circling of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca -- see a lot of physical contact and close quarters, but perhaps not as much as the rites at Mina, in a desert valley outside Mecca.

The epic crowds squeeze together along ramps and platforms that control traffic around the walls. They push past one another to hurl pebbles at each wall, often shouting curses at Satan and rejecting his temptations.