Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is caused by the coronavirus MERS-CoV and is the causative agent of a serious respiratory illness that since September 2012 has infected 250 people globally and in 93 of the cases death has resulted. While some cases were reported from Europe all the patients had recently been in the Gulf countries. Research has revealed that MERS-CoV is widespread in camels throughout Saudi Arabia and that the virus, or a closely related form of it, has been present in camels in KSA for the last twenty years. Infection of camels is determined by nasal and rectal swabs or by antibodies in the blood and examination of archived samples has now shown the presence of MERS-CoV, or its related form, in camels from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tunisia.
Adult camels are more likely to carry antibodies to the virus while young animals carry the live virus. The first known case in humans was a Saudi Arabian man who had four pet camels and spread of the virus to humans is thought to be the result of poor hygiene. Some individuals had had contact with confirmed cases of MERS while in some cases camel milk was implicated but there are cases of human infection where the patient has not been in contact with camels. More that 80% of adult camels in KSA showed antibodies to the virus while 90% aged 2 or under were infected indicating that the camel can be a reservoir host for the virus.
In the last week 50 cases of MERS have been confirmed in Saudi Arabia and there have been 7 deaths. Between 16th and 21st of April 9 cases were reported in the United Arab Emirates. The KSA government is treating the situation seriously and the Minister for Health resigned on Monday. The government has issued recommendations to all those considering pilgrimage to Mecca and advising that the elderly, those under 15 years or those with health conditions do not go. In addition farms producing camel milk in the vicinity of Mecca and Medina have been relocated. Increasing concern in the country has led to a suggestion in the media that ‘if there is something wrong with our camels then we should kill them.
As the evidence that the dromedary camel can form a reservoir host for the MERS virus increases the possibility of these animals rapidly losing their value and an increased likelihood that camel meat is illegally moved across international boundaries. In other words we need to be aware of the increased risks we face from the Illegal Transboundry Animal Trade( ITAT)
It has to be remembered that when drought and outbreaks of disease occur the value of livestock rapidly drops and they are move to wherever there is a market.