|Camels are used for racing, meat and milk, as well as transport|
Various news sources today report that dromedary camels – "ships of the desert" as The Independent puts it – could be the source of the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) virus that emerged last year. MERS is believed to be caused by a type of coronavirus.
Coronaviruses are found worldwide and cause respiratory illnesses of varying severity, ranging from the common cold to the severe respiratory illness SARS.
As of August 2013, there have been 94 confirmed cases of MERS, all in people with links to Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
There has been some evidence of human-to-human transmission of MERS, but it is thought that the virus could have been spread through contact with animals. Animals are common "biological reservoirs" for coronaviruses.
In the current study, blood samples routinely collected from a group of camels in Oman were all found to be positive for antibodies against MERS virus, suggesting that the animals had been infected with the virus. Only 9% of samples from camels in the Canary Islands were positive for antibodies against MERS virus.
The researchers say that this does not mean that camels are necessarily the main animal reservoirs – they have not yet tested other livestock from the Middle East where MERS has occurred. Even if camels are the main reservoir for infection it remains unclear what level of contact with them could cause transmission.
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