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MERS battle: Camel imports face scrutiny

JEDDAH: Saudi authorities suspect that the MERS virus may have arrived in camels from the Horn of Africa, and could ban such imports until it knows more, says Tariq Madani, who heads the scientific advisory board of the Health Ministry’s command and control center (CCC).
Any ban on the camel trade with the region would badly hurt the economy of Somalia, which is a major livestock exporter to Saudi Arabia.
Madani said scientists are currently testing camels at sea ports before authorities allow them in.
“We do have suspicions that the disease may have been imported through camel trade from the Horn of Africa, but we haven’t proved it yet,” Madani said.
He said the final decision on a ban on camel imports from the region lies with the agriculture ministry.
Madani said the ministry “hasn’t yet released an official ban for the importation of camels,” although colleagues there had told him such a move is “under consideration.”
He said: “We have always imported camels from the African Horn.... but we will stop that until we get more information on whether they are infected or not.”
Much more scientific research is needed to nail down the source of the MERS infections in humans and exactly how it makes the leap, but preliminary studies suggest the virus’ animal reservoir is likely to be camels.
“Since this is a zoonotic disease we are collaborating with the ministry of agriculture to answer the question of whether these camels imported from the African Horn are possible sources of infection,” Madani said.
Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest market for livestock from Somalia, with at least 70 percent of Somali exports going to the Kingdom.
Most exports go via two Gulf of Aden ports — Bossaso and Berbera — in two breakaway regions of northern Somalia, but the animals come from all over the country, with some arriving across porous borders with southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.
Madani said that while Saudi Arabia does have some domestic camels, most of those used for meat and trade are imported from the Horn of Africa.
Lisa Murillo, an expert in virology and affiliate scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, said she had analyzed data on human MERS cases in the Middle East and camel imports from the Horn of Africa — and found striking correlations that cry out for further investigation.
As a result of her findings, Murillo says she has developed what she acknowledges is a “very speculative hypothesis” — that the number of MERS cases in Arabian Peninsula countries is related to the number of camels imported into those countries.
“That correlation just leaps off the page,” she said.
“The most important thing we need to be doing right now — outside of Saudi Arabia and the UAE — is looking for human and camel cases of MERS in the Horn of Africa — particularly in the ports of Somalia,” she said. “If it turns out to be in camels there, why wouldn’t it be in humans there as well?“
Madani said teams of scientists working under his leadership at the CCC were doing exactly that in Saudi Arabia.
“As we speak we are doing a study on camels imported from the Horn of Africa,” he said.
“We are taking samples from them in the sea ports before they are allowed in, and we’re also taking samples from people handling them to test them for antibodies.”
Experts say that if Saudi Arabia does ban imports from Somalia, it could have a severe impact on the nation.
A previous Saudi ban on Somali livestock exports in 2000 — the concerns then was rinderpest and Rift Valley fever — hammered the economy before it was lifted in 2009. From 2 million head shipped in 2008, exports jumped to 3 million in 2009 and hit 4.8 million in 2012, according to an EU official.

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