Monday, October 05, 2015

Saudi Camel Owners Threaten Over MERS `Slander’

Photo: ©FAO/Ami Vitale

Credit FAO

# 10,596


The camel-MERS connection was first recognized in the summer of 2013 (see Lancet: Camels Found With Antibodies To MERS-CoV-Like Virus), and since then we’ve seen a steady parade of studies that have demonstrated not only prior infection, but active shedding of the MERS virus from dromedary camels (see EID Journal: Replication & Shedding Of MERS-CoV In Inoculated Camels).


After months of inaction – and sometimes outright denial - in May of 2014 the Saudi Ministry Of Agriculture Finally Issued Warnings On Camels, urging breeders and owners to limit their contact with camels, and to use PPEs (masks, gloves, protective clothing) when in close contact with their animals.


This caused an immediate backlash among camel owners, and much of the general public. The idea that camels – a beloved national symbol that literally made settlement of that arid region possible – could carry a disease deadly to humans, was simply unthinkable.  A concept made even harder to accept due to the widespread belief in the healthful effects of camel’s milk and urine in the treatment of disease.


In response, posting selfies of `Camel Kissing’ to prove camel contact wasn’t dangerous briefly became a thing.

Image Credit: A Saudi farmer kisses a young she-camel - Credit: Al Sharq


Studies have shown that nearly all Middle Eastern camels become infected with the virus (usually early in life), but they only shed the virus for a week or two.   Re-infection is possible, but camels appear to be infectious for only brief periods of time during their lifetime.


So, most of the time, it looks like you can get away with kissing your camel without fear of contracting MERS.  


The problem is, you are playing a game of camel-roulette.  You can never be quite sure when your camel is `loaded’ with the active virus. Last April in the Lancet’s Presence of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus antibodies in Saudi Arabia: a nationwide, cross-sectional, serological study by Drosten & Memish et al., researchers found MERS antibodies in 15 of 10009 serum samples analyzed from across Saudi Arabia, and that:


`Seroprevalence of MERS-CoV antibodies was significantly higher in camel-exposed individuals than in the general population.’


While only briefly infectious, camels appear to be the main zoonotic source for the sporadic re-introduction of the MERS virus into the human population.  Direct camel-to-human transmission, however, appears to account for only a minority of MERS cases.  


Most humans contract the virus from other humans, often in large hospital outbreaks.  So one camel-to-human transmission can, theoretically, plant the seed for a hospital or community outbreak that involves hundreds.


Limited mild or asymptomatic transmission in the community are another plausible route, although we lack specific evidence to prove it. Incredibly, more than three years after the virus was first discovered, we still haven’t seen the long-awaited case-control study on MERS, which is hoped will shed some light on how the virus is transmitting in the community.


The exclusion of camels from this year’s Hajj (see Hajj: Camel Sacrifice Prohibited To Help Prevent MERS), along with constant warnings to tourists to avoid riding, or coming in contact with camels, and caveats about the dangers of consuming camel products have all helped to drive the price of camels down dramatically over the past year.


Camel owners threaten to sue ‘rumor mongers’

October 4, 2015

Camel owners are accusing “hidden hands” behind the campaign against camels, which has led to the deterioration of the animal market and deeply impacted their prices, alleging that government agencies are mainly supporting these parties.

Owners say they are prepared to sue all those who have been spreading rumors that camels are mainly causing coronavirus, including the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Ministry of Agriculture and other government agencies.

Camel owners say they have suffered extreme losses due to the escalation of accusations of a possible role of camels in the spread of coronavirus, insisting instead that there is no relationship between the two.

(Continue . . . )


Granted, a lawsuit against the Saudi MOH and MOA is unlikely to get very far.  More importantly, this tells us that three years into the slow-rolling MERS epidemic, those who are best positioned to stop the virus at its zoonotic source remain unconvinced of the threat. 


Until that changes, the odds of containing MERS in the Middle East remain low.

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