Saudi Arabia reports MERS case, weighs camel import ban

Saudi Arabia reported one new MERS-CoV case today, and a top Saudi health official told Reuters that the country is considering banning the importing of camels from the Horn of Africa because of worries about the virus.

The Saudi Ministry of Health (MOH) said a MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) case was identified in a 58-year-old expatriate in the city of Bisha. The patient, who is not a healthcare worker, is in a hospital intensive care unit.

The man's illness raised the ministry's MERS tally to 711 cases with 292 deaths. No new deaths were reported today.

Camel ban considered

Meanwhile, Tariq Madani, who heads the scientific advisory board overseeing the MOH's control center for MERS-CoV, said the Saudi agriculture ministry is considering a ban on camels from the Horn of Africa, according to a Reuters story today.

"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 told Reuters. He said camels are now being tested at Saudi seaports before being allowed into the country.

MERS-CoV is known to be fairly common in dromedary camels in the Middle East, and one recent study found the virus in Egyptian camels that had been imported from Sudan or Ethiopia. Other studies have detected MERS-CoV-like antibodies in camels in Kenya, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The animals are believed to be an important source of human infections, but how the virus jumps from camels to humans has not been pinned down.

Lisa Murillo, PhD, a virologist and affiliate scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Reuters that she has analyzed data on MERS cases in the Middle East and camel imports from the Horn of Africa and has found striking correlations.

She said scientists should be looking for MERS-CoV in camels and humans in the Horn of Africa. Madani said Saudi scientists are doing that, by taking samples from imported camels at seaports and from their human handlers.

The story said Somalia is a major exporter of camels to Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi ban on the imports would be a major blow to Somalia's fragile economy.

See also:

Jun 27 Saudi MOH statement

Jun 27 Reuters story

Related May 7 CIDRAP News item

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