GENEVA, April 14(AP) - The World Health Organization said Friday it has recorded 23 cases of meningitis, seven of them fatal, among pilgrims returning from this year's Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and their relatives.

There were 17 cases in Britain, with four deaths. Of these, 11 were pilgrims who had just returned from Saudi Arabia and six were close contacts, WHO said. Most of the cases involved a strain of meningitis which is rarely found in Britain.

In France there were six cases - two pilgrims and four family members - and three people died.

``No common risk factor other than the pilgrimage has yet been found,'' the WHO's weekly epidemiological report said.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia denied that the French victims had contracted meningitis while performing the annual pilgrimage to the kingdom last month.

``The source (of the disease) is not Mecca or Saudi Arabia. The number of cases registered in the kingdom last year was 11, which is considered a low figure compared to other countries,'' a Health Ministry official was quoted as saying.

Meningitis is spread through close contact. Symptoms of bacterial meningitis include stiff neck, fever, intense headache, nausea, vomiting and a purplish rash.

Prior to traveling to Mecca, Muslims are required by Saudi Arabia to produce documents certifying that they received vaccinations against dangerous and contagious diseases such as meningitis.

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