Mers virus a threat to camels in Kenya

Nearly half of camels in parts of Kenya have been infected by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) virus, according to a study published in the journal Plos One.

Kenya has the third largest camel population in Africa, estimated at over three million, just behind Somalia and Sudan. However, no human Mers cases have been reported in the country.

A team of scientists from the US, Kenya, New Zealand and Europe, who surveyed 335 dromedary — single humped — camels from herds in Kenya’s Laikipia County, found that 47 per cent of the animals tested positive for Mers antibodies, showing they had been exposed to the virus.

“Although Laikipia County’s camel density is low relative to more northern regions of Kenya, the 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,” said study author Eric Fevre, professor at the University of Liverpool.

Mers is a viral respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus (Mers-CoV) that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. There is currently no vaccine or specific treatment available.

Strains of Mers-CoV have been identified in camels in Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. To date, 1,589 people from 20 countries have been infected with Mers, while 567 people have died from the virus.

Although the majority of human cases of Mers have been attributed to human-to-human infections, camels are likely to be a major reservoir host for the virus.

The team will now focus on determining whether the Mers virus in Laikipia camels is genetically similar to the one in other parts of the Horn of Africa, as well as to the known human pathogenic strain in the Middle East.