The Saudi Arabian government is putting no travel restrictions in place ahead of next month's celebration of Ramadan, which is expected to bring millions of pilgrims to Islam's holiest site, Mecca, in spite of the continuing spread of the MERS coronavirus. According to the International Business Times, health officials are urging pilgrims who travel to Mecca during Ramadan to wear face masks to avoid contraction or spreading the disease, which so far has killed more than half of the people it has infected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that since September of 2012, more than 50 cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus or MERS-CoV have been identified around the world. Salman Rawaf, professor of public health at Imperial College London, said to the Financial Times, "The risk [to pilgrims] is there. The advice from the World Health Organisation is wear a mask."

In 2012, six million people traveled to Mecca to celebrate Umrah, the Ramadan pilgrimage to the Ka'ba mosque, which was built in the city of Mecca around a great black stone. The monument and the city around it were deemed Islam's holiest site by the Prophet Mohammed. This is a separate pilgrimage from the annual Hajj, which in 2012 brought 4 million people to Mecca.

Very little is currently known about MERS-CoV. Cases so far have been concentrated in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Individuals traveling to those areas from Germany, Italy, the U.S. and France have been infected, but only from close and prolonged contact with other infected individuals. The virus attacks the respiratory system but is sometimes accompanied by stomach pains and diarrhea. Victims run high fevers, develop pneumonia and show unusually low numbers of white blood cells in their bloodstream.

MERS-CoV's exact mode of transmission is still unknown. WHO reported on May 31 that a high percentage of laboratory-identified cases occurred in people with pre-existing medical problems which may have made them more vulnerable to infection.

Ramadan 2013 begins on July 9 and continues for 30 days until August 7.

A WHO spokesperson told the International Business Times that Saudi Arabia has been doing an "excellent job" coping with the disease so far.

"International concern about these infections is high, because it is possible for this virus to move around the world. There have been now several examples where the virus has moved from one country to another through travellers," the representative said. "Consequently, all countries in the world need to ensure that their healthcare workers are aware of the virus and the disease it can cause and that when unexplained cases of pneumonia are identified, Mers-CoV should be considered."

[image of Middle Eastern boy in respiratory mask via]