11 May 2014


Yes, yes. I know.
You may just now be hearing about MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), but it has been all over the camel-world news for more than a year. Yours truly monitors these things.

Yes, many camels in the Middle East harbour the coronavirus (it's similar to SARS). Scientists do not yet know how or why the camels have it, or exactly how/why humans become infected. Study of the animals and the virus has not yet shown the transmission link from camels. Reported incidents of the disease are on the rise, especially in Saudi Arabia.
novel-infectious-diseases.blogspot.com, September 2013

From Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University:
To date, at least 300 people have been infected with the virus that causes MERS and approximately 100 have died since the first documented case in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. ... Most cases have been in Saudi Arabia, with lower numbers in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. ... While human-to-human transmission has occurred, the source of the disease in most cases has remained a mystery.
“The finding of infectious virus strengthens the argument that dromedary camels are reservoirs for MERS-CoV,” says [report] author Thomas Briese, PhD, associate director of the Center for Infection and Immunity and associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School. “The narrow range of MERS viruses in humans and a very broad range in camels may explain in part why human disease is uncommon: because only a few genotypes are capable of cross species transmission,” adds Dr. Briese.[1]

Some countries have been slow to issue precautions, perhaps because camels have always been so embedded in their history:
Camels occupy a special place in Saudi society, providing a link to an important but vanishing nomadic tradition and valued at prices that can climb to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised people at most risk of severe disease to avoid contact with camels and take precautions when visiting places where the animals are present, and to avoid drinking raw milk. ... as Saudis drift further from their Bedouin roots, many increasingly cherish values seen as purer and simpler than those of today. The ownership and love of camels is an integral part of that nostalgic vision, expressed in races and pageants that attract tens of thousands of spectators, and in the millions of riyals that change hands for the fastest or most beautiful animals.[2] 
Saudi Arabia's health minister today warned Saudis on national television to avoid close contact with camels, and not to consume raw camel meat or camel milk, after a report that dromedaries are the "plausible" source of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus. ... Almost all of the worldwide cases have been in the Arabian peninsula, or in people who had just returned from visiting it. ... The team [EcoHealth Alliance] found several varieties of the virus in camels, and only one in humans. This may be good news. If only one of the camel viruses can jump into humans, the team says, it may not have the genetic diversity it needs to evolve into a more threatening human epidemic.[3]

The research and the reports continue. It's common sense to avoid an animal's fluids, flesh, and products. MERS is no joke and for a traveller, hygiene will be more essential than ever on encountering camels and their handlers. Wearing masks and gloves is now being advised.
Tour companies that provide camel riding should seek the help of veterinarians to collect nasal swab of camels and get them tested, he said. “It is an easy, but a very important precautionary measure.”Though the number of camels used by tour operators would not be too high, the scientist said it is important to focus on them since hundreds of tourists come in close contact with them. Last week, Prof. Wernery had advised that tourists should refrain from touching and kissing camels. ...“Though we are only talking about camels now, we should broaden our views and look at other animals too as we don’t know (how) camels ... get the virus,” said the expert, who last week attended a top meeting on Mers in Saudi Arabia. Researchers at CVRL are now collecting samples from rodents, gazelles and other animals from the desert to find out the possibility of any of them being a reservoir of the virus.[4]

No, I can say that no camel has every spat at or on me. I do not kiss them nor do I plan to.

Yes, it's still OK to hug me.
Reality check: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2014/05/middle-east-respiratory-syndrome

Updates to follow.

[1] "Live Virus Implicates Camels in MERS Outbreak," 29 April 2014, Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health, News (http://www.mailman.columbia.edu/news/live-virus-implicates-camels-mers-outbreak : accessed 2 May 2014).
[2] Angus McDowall, "Camel Tradition May Hinder Control of New Disease," 2 May 2014, Oman Daily Observer (http://main.omanobserver.om/?p=77885 : accessed 2 May 2014).
[3] Debora MacKenzie, "Avoid Camels to Escape MERS, warns Saudi Minister," 29 April 2014, NewScientist (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25489-avoid-camels-to-escape-mers-warns-saudi-minister.html#.U2ZzevldXiw : accessed 2 May 2014).
[4] Sajila Saseendram, "Fun ride camels need to be tested for MERS: Expert," 8 May 2014, Khaleej Times (http://www.khaleejtimes.com/kt-article-display-1.asp?xfile=data/nationhealth/2014/May/nationhealth_May16.xml&section=nationhealth : accessed 11 May 2014).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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