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Camels May Transmit Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) To Humans, New Study Shows

Oct 19, 2015 01:16 PM EDT

Nearly half of Kenya camels have been infected by the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), say researchers from the University of Liverpool who add that this may help explain the causes of the wide-spread rate of human infections.

MERS is a viral respiratory illness that first emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Currently, no vaccine exists to treat this highly contagious illness. When infected, most people develop symptoms such as a fever, cough, and shortness of breath. To date, MERS has infected 1,595 people in more than 20 countries, and 571 of those cases have resulted in death, according to a news release.

For their study, researchers examined 335 dromedary, or single humped, camels from nine herds in Laikipia County, Kenya and discovered that 47 percent tested positive for MERS antibodies. 

"Although Laikipia County camel density is low relative to more northern regions of Kenya, our study suggests the population is sufficient to maintain high rates of viral transmission and that camels may be constantly re-infected and serve as long term carriers of the virus. MERS in camels, it seems, is much like being infected by the common cold," Eric Fèvre, professor and Chair of Veterinary Infectious Diseases at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Infection and Global Health, said in a statement.  

Researchers are still unsure what role exactly the animals play in spreading MERS to humans. Further research is required to fully assess if the virus is zoonotic, meaning that it is able to be spread between animals and humans. Understanding this illness will help better protect people living in Kenya.   

"The significance of this is not yet clear, because we don't know if the virus is universally zoonotic. While the risk of these camels spreading MERS to humans cannot yet be discounted, it appears to be, for now, very low as there have been no human cases diagnosed in Kenya," Fèvre added.

Their study was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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